Interview: Justin Pierre of Motion City Soundtrack

Motion City Soundtrack

Frontman Justin Pierre discusses Motion City Soundtrack’s latest album Panic Stations, writing from a more instinctual place, how his relationship with music has changed over the years, struggling with writer’s block, and not planning the future too far in advance.

You recorded this new album last summer, so you’ve been sitting on it for quite a while. Can you talk about why it’s taken so long for it to get released and what it’s like having something done that you’ve had to sit on for this long?

Well, it’s happened twice now, twice in a row, with our last record and with this record. The last one we didn’t have a label when we made it, so that was part of why we sat on it for so long. But this one, mainly I’m going to blame my daughter, because I had a kid in March.

I think originally it was going to come out in February. So somewhere in there, once we hit the three-month mark or whatever that was, then I told everybody. We were just about to pull the trigger on getting all the information out and planning a tour around it.

So that had to be put on hold, and then we decided to do a Commit This to Memory 10-year anniversary tour instead. So we just kind of flipped it, and now we’re at the end of the year doing the Panic Stations tour. So yeah, my daughter. Blame her.

Since the record is over a year old now, do you find that your relationship with it has changed since you wrote and recorded it?

I think I understand it more. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but I think a lot of what I’ve done over the years is weird. I continue to do the same thing, in terms of how I write and make music, but my understanding of it has changed.

It’s kind of nice to be able to really sit with it for a while to understand it more. A lot of times with the way that we write, the music comes first and then I usually instinctively have the melody. It just kind of comes to me, or I’ll sing something and try to fine-tune it. I’ll sing garbage over it, and then eventually a word or a phrase or something will appear. If I keep singing it, if I keep coming to the same spot and I’m like, “Oh, this is the word. This is the thing,” then I’ll take that and I’ll investigate what that means and find a story.

Once I find a story, then I figure out how to piece it all together. It’s almost like a puzzle or a math problem, or whatever the hell you want to call it. That’s usually how things go, and then it’s whatever’s on my mind at the time. If that idea doesn’t work, I’ll find inspiration somewhere else and I’ll change the idea as it’s going. I’m speaking mostly in terms of lyric writing.

This record’s kind of an anomaly. Every previous record, there’s usually an overwhelming theme that I can’t get out of my head, or like a phrase or a word or something. I usually limit myself to two or three of those, and then I cut out all the rest.

So on this record, for some reason I was noticing a lot of water based imagery. I don’t know why that was, but instead of cutting them out I decided to keep adding as much of it in as possible. I don’t know. It was just to try something new. What I liked about all those word choices is they worked on several different levels for several different things, depending on how you looked at them, whether it was literal or not.

So yeah, my relationship to the music, my point being is that it’s usually not until a year or two later, or a few years later, having done this Commit This to Memory tour 10 years later, really looking at the songs and going, “Oh, yeah.” A lot of the Commit This to Memory stuff was written, not under duress, but for half of it I was drunk and angry and for half of it I was sober and remorseful.

My relationship to that album is weird, because I don’t necessarily feel the same things singing them night after night, but it’s a good reminder of where I was at a really horrible time in my life. Sorry this is so roundabout. We’re probably going to get maybe two questions and then we’re done [laughs].

So my relationship with this record is such that having had it for a year, as I’ve gotten older and as I’ve written songs, I think a lot more of it I’ve gone with my gut instinct. I sort of let instinct take over. Like, I think I had the chorus for “I Can Feel You” but I didn’t know what it meant, and then I had to write around that even though I didn’t know what it meant. Then as I started piecing together the verses, then what the song was about changed and the chorus made sense to me. I don’t know if that makes sense.

So this week you did that feature where you ranked your albums, and you put Go as your least favorite. Do you think Panic Stations was a response or a reaction to that album in some ways?

Absolutely, and that was an impossible task. It’s weird, because if you were to ask me which albums I like to listen to the most, I would say Go is probably one of my favorites to listen to. But in terms of performing, it’s not a great album to perform. I think the reason why is that we wrote it all in separate rooms. We wrote the entire thing in the studio and we had never played any of those songs together. Through doing it that way, we missed something. So that’s why.

I’m so into Panic Stations right now. We’ve been playing these songs, and so it was coming from that point of view. Now, if they had asked me to rank them a year from now, or two, it might be a totally different thing. Just because I’m so into Panic Stations, I see correlations between Commit This and My Dinosaur Life a little bit, in terms of how we recorded and a certain level of fun and excitement, other than I Am the Movie.

I Am the Movie we definitely had fun and excitement, but it’s so old. It’s such a weird mish mosh of songs and all these people over the years. We had five years to make that record. Tony and Jesse and Matt came in and made the parts their own, but it was just weird. So Commit This to Memory is kind of like our real first record. I don’t know.

Every album has kind of been a response, not really on purpose, but I think this one was on purpose. Other albums were not on purpose, but they sort of ping-pong back and forth. I do feel like there is a relationship between Even If It Kills Me and Go, and there’s a relationship between Commit This to Memory and My Dinosaur Life and Panic Stations. Then I Am the Movie is kind of on its own.

I’m not saying we’re going to continue that trend. In my head, that’s what I think, but I’m too close to it to have any real. I feel like true fans of our music would have a better grasp of what’s going on than I do.

One of big things you decided to do differently this time was record it all live for the most part. How did you like doing that and is that something you think you’ll do more of in the future?

Hell yes. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I was intimated by that idea. I think we grew up in the age where everybody could do their part on their own. We’d all play live. We’d track live, but then we’d only use the drums and go and redo all the guitars, bass, vocals and all that stuff. But for this one, we tried to get as much of it as a full band in the studio in one take as we could. We didn’t do all of them that way, but we tried to.

I read somewhere you started out with 50 or so song ideas when you first started working on the record. How did you pick and choose what you went with and whittled that process down?

Gosh, it’s tough to remember that far back. Yeah, I don’t know. Certain songs would float to the top and we’d just want to play them more while we were writing them. I think that’s how that was done.

I know certain songs were finished. Like, I had what I thought was the perfect closer to the album. It was a very Weezer-y, “Only in Dreams” kind of song, and then Josh showed up with his guitar part for “Days Will Run Away.” I was like, “Oh shit, this is a way better version of the idea that I was working on.” It was totally different.

So we also had a bunch of songs that were finished, but they were not recorded. I don’t know if they’ll make it to the next record or not. We kind of went with whatever we felt were the best or most interesting songs that we were into in the moment. I think we only had one b-side, and I don’t know if anybody will see that. I don’t know if it’s going to exist anywhere.

It was tough. We really wanted to make a 10-song record, and then at the end of the day we were fighting too much about what song we would cut. Nobody wanted to cut the same thing. So yeah, things can get hard.

This is also your first album with a new drummer, Claudio, and I know Tony was such a huge part in the band’s sound. What was it like with that transition and recording with Claudio for the first time?

I feel like it was a brief moment of overwhelming sadness and despair, followed by a really quick moment of excitement and joy. Luckily, we’ve known Claudio forever. He’s worked for us for a very long time, and even filled in for Tony on several shows. I don’t know if it was a tour, but when Tony broke his arm. It was so great to have somebody Josh and I could play with, because he’s from Minnesota, too. So the three of us could get together and rehearse.

I think we were rehearsing for Warped Tour in 2013. After Tony left, we hired Claudio to play with us for Warped Tour, and then in between rehearsing we would just write random songs. It was so much fun to write with him. There was very little writing as a band all together when we had Tony in L.A., Matt in Virginia and Jesse in New York.

So having Claudio there, just while we were rehearsing, we started writing a bunch of stuff. It was really fun and we were like, “God, this is awesome.” That’s what I meant, when Tony left and we were like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do?” Claudio is hired, and then suddenly we were having a great time writing with someone. We were like, “Let’s just do this. Yeah, this makes sense.” It was very quick.

I read you pulled from some different books on this album, specifically Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and A Million Little Pieces. Can you talk about what you got inspiration from with those?

Yeah, I used the name of the book A Million Little Pieces in a song. “I Can Feel You” I think is the one, and then “Heavy Boots” came from a line in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I think I’ve always kind of thrown things in there, but this time it was more book references. To me, it didn’t really have anything to do with the books as much as the word usage.

When I think of the phrase “Heavy Boots,” I think of that book. The way that it’s described in the book and the way that the kid refers to himself, the way he feels wearing these really heavy boots, it’s such a brilliant shortcut. So anybody who knows that would know what the feeling of the song is, and anybody who doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. I think that’s how I used those sorts of references.

Same with A Million Little Pieces. I know that author got into some trouble, but that is a fucking great book and everyone should read it. That’s kind of how that works. There’s a bunch of little things in there, little nuggets of truth. I feel like I keep referencing the same things. I think The X-Files has been in at least a couple records. There’s a bunch of X-Files references. I don’t know. It’s just something I do, and it’s become a problem.

In addition to the nautical theme you were talking about earlier, was there anything else you were aiming for lyrically on this album?

I don’t ever really start out with a plan. It just sort of happens. There’s a Del the Funky Homosapien line I love so much where he says, “I find a new way to say whatever’s clever.” The way that I’ve dissected that is basically try not to repeat yourself too much and find a new way to say something.

I think that’s all I’m trying to do at that level. If you were to break down what these songs are about or what I’m singing about over the years, I feel like a lot of them overlap into the same territory [laughs]. You have to find new ways to get experiences or feelings across, so that’s the main thing I’m trying to do.

Do you find feel like you’ve changed a lot as a writer over the years?

I don’t know. I would like to think so. I feel like I went from having zero plans, and just writing whatever was in the top of my head, to really fine-tuning and being meticulous and worried about recreating that, to then finally getting to a point where I do things on instinct and I don’t question it, even if it doesn’t make sense to me sometimes. I think I’m liking that a lot more, being in that place.

Everything that I’ve done in the past, the stuff that I worked really hard on and meticulous has now become just a part of my unconscious, maybe. So when I’m writing, things come out and I’m like, “Ooh, I like this.” I’m not sure what it means or where it came from, but I know that this is it, and then I figure out how to connect the dots a bit more. I’ve been doing more writing like that as of late and I like that.

I think it really started with this other band that I had for a while, I guess still have but it’s not really going, called Farewell Continental, where I did not think at all. It was like, “Let’s not figure out what this means. Let’s just write the songs.” Even the sounds of the words were just as important as the words themselves, or not as important. We would try to create a feeling with words, and then I know that definitely spilled over into My Dinosaur Life. That was when I first started doing that.

I think songs like “Pulp Fiction” and the last song on the album, “The Weakends,” are definitely in that vein. Then I think I pulled back a little and tried to weave it. I have a tendency to do all or nothing, so in life I’m trying to find a way to do some balance of in between. I think that this record is a pretty good balance of writing styles, but a lot more of it was instinctual.

That’s not to say that I didn’t suffer. Even in the studio, I had one whole song I had no lyrics to and I had 14 days to write it. Four days from being finished, I finally broke through and I had it, and then it came really quickly.

Do you get writer’s block a lot?

All the time. I do know that when I’m writing, I haven’t been writing at all right now. I just moved into a new house. I’ve had a lot of things happen in the last few months, so I really haven’t been doing any writing. When I write, I’ll sit in front of a computer and I’ll play the song over and over and over. I’ll sing along with it and keep going. I’ll just do that for two to four hours straight.

Sometimes I have nothing to show for weeks, and sometimes I’ll get the whole song, or like I’ll get a new verse. Or I can’t get the second verse, so I’ll break up the first verse into two parts, and then try to rearrange things and add something to the back end of the first verse and the front end of the second verse. For me, I’ll just sit there and keep doing it until it happens. That’s usually how most songs end up.

Some songs when you’re really lucky will write themselves. One of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had was “Last Night.” That song was written, I think it was Josh or Tony, somebody started playing and we all jumped in. The melody was just there and it was like this is it. I’m just going to tell a story, and then I think I wrote the whole thing lyrically in one sitting. So that’s great, but that rarely happens.

On this album, one of those might have been “The Samurai Code.” I was just having trouble with all of these songs and I couldn’t figure it out. There’s a lot of songs that didn’t make it on this record that I couldn’t figure out the words. The melodies and the music were great, but the words were just not happening.

Somehow “The Samurai Code” happened. That was the first one, and then from there it was like, “Oh, this is how it’s going to go. OK, great.” I think that one may have sparked the whole water thing. It just kind of came out. I don’t know how I feel about songs, like I can’t rate them all in my head, but I do think that lyrically “Samurai Code” is one of my favorites.

There’s also a kinship of styles on that, in terms of writing. I think it was those words where the sounds of the words themselves are as important as the words are, like how I was talking about before with “The Weakends” and “Disappear” and “Pulp Fiction.” I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. I’m not 100 percent sure. I’d have to go back and look, but I think so.

How do you think being a father now is going to affect your writing?

I don’t know. I can only assume it’s going to creep in there somehow. It’s part of who I am, but I’m so new into it that I’m not really writing about it yet. I have other things that I’ve been writing that don’t fit into any band or project that I’m working on. I’ve got a bunch of demos and things, and a couple of those songs are about kids, or fatherhood or whatever.

My first real attempt at that was with “Time Turned Fragile” but without having any real experience, writing a song about me from my dad’s point of view. So now when we’ve been playing that on the Commit This to Memory tour that just happened, that was an interesting experience.

But yeah, I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I can only speculate that it will show up somehow, but hopefully not in a gross weird way. Hopefully in a normal, appealing to everyone kind of way.

With all you guys getting older now and starting families, what do you think the future holds for the band? Do you think you’ll still be able to do this full time or have to take more breaks? What do you think that looks like?

I don’t know. We sort of just take everything as it’s happening. I do know that I used to do better at being a human when I was on the road when I had rules and things. Being at home, there was all this time and I would get into trouble. I do know that now it’s kind of flipped. Well, it hasn’t really flipped.

On tour, there’s such a regiment, like OK, you do this at this time and this at this time. Everything’s so much easier because your days are all the same, and I’m kind of like that. I’m a bit OCD, but I’m also very messy. Scattered is better. Not messy, scattered.

So I do appreciate my time at home now more than I used to, having a wife and a kid. I don’t know how it’s going to affect us. I’m one of three, and Jesse’s having a kid now, so who knows what’s going to happen? I guess we’ll find out.

Do you still see yourself doing this several years down the line?

Yeah, or at least some form of this, whatever this is. That’s that one thing I know how to do, the one thing I enjoy doing, is writing and playing music. I can definitely foresee myself writing and recording music on some level. Whoever’s interested will sort of deem whether or not I get out in front of people. I think you can only really plan a year out, or a few months out. But so far, so good. All is still well.

So I’ll wrap this up because I know our time is just about up. You have the tour with Wonder Years coming up next. Do you have anything else in the works besides that?

Some things are in the works but not confirmed. I believe we will most likely, I don’t know about in the U.S., but some things outside of the U.S. might happen early next year. Then perhaps more touring in the U.S. after that. That would be my guess. Again, nothing is confirmed, so I can’t really say.