Interview: Justin Pierre of Motion City Soundtrack

Motion City Soundtrack

Frontman Justin Pierre discusses the different ideas Motion City Soundtrack pursued when writing Go, being obsessed with mortality, and how his dark past continues to play a role in his lyrics.

So this last week was probably a little weird for you with the new album accidentally getting leaked. What was that like to deal with?

I guess initially the first response is it’s a bummer. The second response is there’s nothing you can do about it. Life goes on. I’m getting better as I get older. I’m getting better at letting things happen. It’s kind of like getting mad at someone in traffic. That person has no idea that you’re upset and that they’re affecting you. It makes no sense to be mad and angry and yell. I like to think of it as something that happened.

I think luckily it seems there are positive things being said about the record, so that’s good. It would be worse if it leaked and everyone was like, “This sucks.” But I also think people that don’t like the band are less likely to take the time out of their day to tell you how much they don’t like your band, unless of course they did like your band at one point and no longer do. Those are some thoughts. Yeah, I don’t know. It happened, and that’s about it.

Originally, I think the album was supposed to come out at the end of last year and kept getting pushed back. It seems from a thematic standpoint it fits the fall/winter time period better than summer. Was that a bummer that it got pushed back six months?

No, as far as I know it wasn’t pushed back. We recorded it in the winter/spring of 2011, February to May, somewhere in there. The plan was to release it on our own because we didn’t have a label. We were kind of doing it piece by piece, like, OK, we’ll think of the record, we’ll do the record, and then once the record’s done we’ll figure out how to release this. Will we release it ourselves? Will we partner up with somebody? What are we going to do?

When we were researching that, we started getting calls from labels. We sent those labels our record and then they asked for meetings. Then we decided, “Oh, let’s go to the meetings and see what people have to say.” And one of those labels was Epitaph. It was just so obvious, hanging out with Brett again and seeing everybody in the office, that we want to be in business with these guys again in some way, shape or form. So that’s kind of how that happened. I think it was near the end of 2011 when all this happened. It’s pretty much as quick as it could come out it is now coming out.

It’s really interesting because in a weird way, even though the album is very different and the topics are different, Commit This to Memory was written in the winter. There’s something very wintery about that, maybe it’s just the themes of the songs, and I feel like this record is similar but both records are coming out in the summer. That’s just a little trivia there.

This record is probably the most eclectic mix of songs you’ve had, or at least up there with Even If It Kills Me. How early on in the process did you realize you were making this hodgepodge of a record?

It was really weird. My Dinosaur Life came out in January of 2010. It was seven months later or so they had stopped working the record and we were getting hints. I don’t remember what happened, but at some point pretty quickly we were no longer on the label. We were like, “Whatever you guys have got.” Everybody always writes, so we just pooled our resources, starting sending songs to each other and started writing at the end of 2010 already, even though the record had only been out seven or eight months. We were just planning for the future, like OK, we’re just going to do this, from everything like songs we loved but weren’t able to put on other records.

Within the iTunes bonus songs, including those, there’s a song from every album that we actually resurrected and found a way to make work during this process. “Bad Idea” was something we wrote for Commit This to Memory that just didn’t work. We kept trying with each record to figure out a way to make it work, and we finally found a way to make it work. It changed a lot, but yeah.

Then from Even If IT Kills Me there’s a song called “Give Up/Give In,” which was my fault because the lyrics were so horrible. So we ended up rewriting melodies and such, and then we recorded that. “Circuits and Wires” was a song we had for My Dinosaur Life. We couldn’t make it work and then we made it work, so there’s that portion of it.

Then there’s also we had upwards of 50, five zero, ideas going into this project. For the first time ever we went into the studio without the 12 songs that we were going to record. Every record, even I Am the Movie, we’ve had our 12 to 15 songs we were going to record. We had no time and we had to bang it out. With this one we had more time in the studio. We took our time and showed up with whole songs and also just snippets of songs, maybe just a guitar part and a melody, and that’s it.

We would constantly go back and forth between all of these 50 ideas and just work on songs. We have a bunch of partially finished songs we either lost interest in or didn’t make sense anymore, whatever. In the end, we recorded 17 songs total for this record. We chiseled away and finally got to the 11 that made sense.

It’s crazy because I think even the three songs that we have available, they’re either on iTunes or in Australia, if you want the specifics and real answers I’m not your guy for this part, but there’s some songs that are real rockers and crazy stuff. It’s just these songs made sense thematically. Two of my favorite songs ended up not on the record, but luckily I think people are going to be able to hear them in one way or another.

It was a very interesting and different way going about it, but I feel definitely working with Ed Ackerson was so refreshing. We’ve never had so much fun in the studio than we’ve had working with him. We’ve done a bunch of smaller projects leading up to this. The opportunity of having no label, having no one to answer to and being our own boss, we said, “This is what we want to do, so we’re going to do it.” It was a lot of fun.

You’re a film buff, so I’m sure you’ve heard the saying how a director usually has to cut their favorite shot from the movie because it doesn’t fit in or because of pacing or whatever. Do you think that has some relation to making a record?

Hmm. I was very excited about doing it this way, but I don’t know I would do it this way again. I think we would want to take some time to write the songs a little more rather than figure it all out in the studio because I ended up trying to write lyrics for 50 songs at the same time. Unless a song writes itself, sometimes songs can take up to eight months or seven years to be written lyrically. I’m talking about the words. That was the only mistake I made. I was constantly panicking and feeling behind and overwhelmed. The actual process of writing lyrics was really excruciating on this record.

We were kind of at the whim of each other of whatever we were working on. If three people were like, “Let’s do this song,” then we shifted to that song. I was like, “OK, I’ll put this aside and work on it.” It was a lot of fun and I like that crazy energy. It just was a lot of work, is what I’m getting at.

As far as cutting out a scene for the better of the whole, as opposed to just liking something for the sake of liking it, there’s one song that is my favorite, which is “Alcohol Eyes,” which I believe is going to be a b-side. It’s a great song, it just didn’t fit the mood of this record. It’s too goofy. I think that even though we have a song like “True Romance” on the record, it was even more so goofy. I really like that song, but unfortunately it just didn’t make sense compared to the other 11, and I was kind of voted out.

Another thing that was really weird was “Floating Down the River.” I was absolutely adamant and assured that that would be the first track on the album because it just felt like a first track. For whatever reason, I was outvoted, and then it almost didn’t make it on the record. Brett had a really good idea. He was like, “It could be the closing track. It’s a very different closing track for you guys.” For me, that song sums up the whole record, and I like having those songs at the beginning.

With the last three albums we had done, each song – “Worker Bee,” “Fell in Love Without You” and “Attractive Today” – sums up the whole record and what it’s about. In a way, both of the songs on this album, “Circuits and Wires” and “Floating Down the River,” they end up summing up what the record’s about from two different angles. I think a person can kind of make sense of things after it’s all said and done. You can tie pieces together and make it make sense to you, and luckily I have been able to do that.

Speaking of the lyrics, it seems one of the big themes of the record is growing older and mortality, which seems to hover over a lot of the songs. Was there anything particular you wanted to approach about that on this record?

Well, a couple things. I’ve always been obsessed with death and mortality in some way, shape or form. I’ve been a heavy drinker/drug addict for many years of my life, and then about five years ago I got sober. My Dinosaur Life was the first record – how do I say this? On that record, there’s a song called “Skin and Bones,” and I feel like that was sort of the beginning of this thing I’m into. There’s a couple other songs on that record, but that one in particular was really it. That song was actually written at the end of Even If It Kills Me, it’s just we didn’t have time to pursue it and see if we could record it.

From there through the last couple of years, I’ve noticed this shift with all of my friends getting married and growing up. People are having kids, parents are becoming grandparents, people are dying. I hadn’t really noticed that being drunk or whatever for so many years. Then suddenly it was like, “Whoa, I graduated high school almost 20 years ago. That’s crazy. What happened? This is really fast.” I think I’ve just really been obsessed with that throughout the writing of this record in particular, so almost every song has some form of that in it, in one way or another. Even a song like “Son of a Gun” is realizing something about yourself.

That goes along with one of my favorite songs on the record, “Everyone Will Die,” which I really love the lyrics to. I also know you usually try to have one song on each record that doesn’t really have a traditional chorus, and that seemed to be the one that played around with that.

Yeah, it’s weird because if you look at it and deconstruct it, it doesn’t make any sense as a song, but when you listen to it, it feels like a whole thing. It feels like you’ve eaten a meal. It’s really creepy. It’s a weird thing. That was something where I remember one night – a lot of times I’ll write out of frustration, like being angry at other people. It was like, “Why can’t I write a song that is simple and universally relatable?” With that in mind, I just sat down and something came out. From the beginning of the song to the little string bridge part, I wrote all those words in just a few moments. Then I was like, “Oh, OK.”

I sent that to Josh and he immediately dug it. From there, Matt took it and wrote this crazy bridge. Everybody added their pieces to it, and then it became a song. It was really quick. I feel like there’s one of those on every record, where it just kind of writes itself and it’s really easy. I was really excited. That sort of sparked another idea that Josh had as a spokesperson for the band. He said, “You’ve written about all this drug stuff and personal stuff. Maybe you can try to make it a little more universal this time. Keep that in mind.”

A song like “Timelines,” I wrote eight different versions of that, with different melodies and everything. We even recorded one, but it was so disgusting and even more personal than this one is. It wasn’t relatable. This version, we recorded it and were finished with it, and then I ended up going in several months later after rewriting it and resung it.

I kind of joke because I’m still singing about me, but I think on this record I’m trying to include you, the listener, so it’s about me and you, not just me but mostly about you. Even though that song is specific, I feel like people can relate it to different points in their life, whatever their story is at that moment. That’s something new for me, and I’m trying to do that a little more.

Another thing that stood out to me about the lyrics is this is the first record where you don’t cuss at all and there’s also less pop culture references and quirkiness. Was that a challenge you wanted to do on this one?

No, there were a lot of ideas we had that were really goofy and weird. I think the only two are really “Son of a Gun” and “True Romance” that get a little goofy, but they’re not that pop referencey. The song “Alcohol Eyes” was the only one we ended up recording that had that, and I think that’s why it stood out. We all loved it but it didn’t fit with the rest of the songs. That just happened to be the way that it was.

It wasn’t a conscious decision not to, it’s just the way that it all worked out. Those songs didn’t end up getting finished during this writing session. I think it’s still in me. I’ve got a lot of random, stupid shit. I don’t mean stupid, but you know, pop references. It’s just how I relate to things. Two people can talk to each other and reference something that they’re both into, understand the emotions around that and this place in time, and it’s like a shortcut.

You have a song called “Boxelder,” which was a term I was not familiar with and had to look up to find out what it is. What made you want to write a song about that?

That was a very strange one. It was an idea that Josh brought to the table. I think part of it is in 7/4. We don’t really do a lot of weird time signature stuff. It was a little bit like “Make Out Kids,” with the chorus, but I don’t know. For some reason, that word had the right amount of syllables. A lot of times we’ll be playing together and I’ll start humming melodies, and then a word or two will pop out. I’ll look at it and go, “Oh, what does that mean? Maybe I should examine this.” That kind of dictates the beginning of where I’ll go.

Sometimes the song ends up being that, and for some reason that word came out. It was the right amount of syllables, and I was like, “Oh, this is interesting. Bugs.” Then I did some more research. It’s kind of weird. I actually do research when I’m writing. I looked up information about the boxelder bug and wanted to make sure it actually was in fact what I wanted to sing about and if it would work for what I’m singing about.

I do remember there was a time in my life where I lived in this sublevel apartment where standing up I was looking at people’s feet as they walked to their cars in the parking lot out back. I couldn’t see anything but the bottom of a parking lot. Boxelder bugs don’t hurt anyone, but they tend to come inside and create this weird mass, hibernate, and then go back out. For some reason, there’s a moment in time where boxelder bugs are just everywhere.

It reminded me of this place that I lived in. I wasn’t drinking so much but I was taking a lot of ephedrine, like over the counter speed, and drinking lots of Mountain Dew and smoking lots of cigarettes, which is horrible. It was an awful time, staying up for three, four nights in a row. I was just a mad person. Not mad angry, mad kind of crazy. I did a lot of writing. A wrote a lot of weird screenplays and songs and things, and it was just a really awful time in my life. For some reason, that word boxelder made me think about it, and then I starting investigating that.

I guess maybe that’s another thing, too. Some of these songs aren’t necessarily how I feel at this moment, but they are how I felt at some point in time. We had all these videos and stuff, and it’s really interesting hearing what other people think songs are about. I try not to dictate that this is what it’s about. Just because I wrote it doesn’t mean I have a monopoly on the meaning of it. Jesse was thinking it was about a relationship metaphorically as a boxelder, as a bug and a host and all that. I don’t know. It’s complicated and it’s weird. I’m getting way off track here, sorry. I tend to think of it as being a person within a person, sort of being this weird, empty shell, walking around doing things zombie-like.

A lot of times when a musician goes from a really dark, unhealthy place to a healthier mindset, their work can suffer or be not as good as it was before. It seems you’ve made that transition really seamlessly. Can you talk about that and how you’ve able to effectively express yourself more so now?

I think that I would use different words. I wouldn’t say not as good, just different. I feel like whenever you get into someone musically, an example for me would be Superchunk. The first album I heard from Superchunk, which was Foolish, for some reason when they progressed as a band I was with them. Every album they put out I liked better than the previous one. It just made sense to me, but I also loved everything they had done prior to that. Sometimes you’ll get into a band from their first album, and the way they progress is totally different than the way you progress and you grow apart from them.

I would also say I did worry about that. I thought, “Oh, man. This alcohol, this fucked up life, is a huge part of who I am.” Once I got away from it, I’m so glad I had the opportunity to be away from it, and my life was not so bad. For some reason, I didn’t like myself. That was at the center of my drinking, the reason why I did that. I actually do like myself now, and I guess I can sing about different things. As an artist, you typically want to try new things. As fans of a certain work, you always expect the person to stay the same, so that’s tricky as well.

Two of my favorite people on planet Earth, as far as who I look up to, would be the writer Jerry Stahl and the actor Robert Downey Jr. Both of those guys have had some serious fucked up drug issues and they have overcome them, and I think their work has been better since doing that. It’s a testament to, for me anyway, having no chemical influence on you actually allows you to be more of yourself than by having that. It’s hard because I feel like if I had more time I can be a little more eloquent, but on the spot I have a hard finding the words. I hope you understand what I’m trying to say.

Yeah, I got it. So one last question, how do you feel you and the band have grown over the years, and what would you feel your biggest crutch is as a lyricist or musician?

OK, I don’t know how to answer this, so I’m just going to say something and hopefully it does answer this. Growing up, being a product of the ‘90s, all of the music that I listen to today still, the majority of it is from 1987 to 1996, right in there, so whatever that is. Unfortunately, a lot of it was labeled alternative music, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, but things have to be classified. For me to be in a band that for some reason people have always called pop-punk doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. At the same time, I’m not the one needing to define it.

For me, I’m trying to do more of what I’m into as the years progress. Not that I wasn’t into what we were doing in the beginning, it’s just that I think we were trying to combine a couple different elements. Like when Josh and I first started playing together, we were really into Jawbox, Fugazi and Sunny Day Real Estate, but then we’re trying to make catchy music out of that stuff. That’s more angular and weird. I think when we discovered bands like the Promise Ring, we got really excited. We were like, “Oh, this makes sense. We can combine these things.”

I think ever since Even If It Kills Me, I started listening to the Jesus and Mary Chain again. I started listening to Guided by Voices, Flaming Lips and Pavement, a lot of these other, weirder bands. I don’t know. I’m trying to combine everything. I love Tom Waits. I listen to a lot of that. One of my favorite bands is the Carpenters. I don’t know if you listen to them at all, but they have some really beautiful music with some of the most depressing fucking lyrics of all time. It’s disturbing. There’s something that we do that’s very similar to that, even though our music does not sound anything like theirs. I really like that idea. I don’t know if I answered your question, but those are just some thoughts that flowed through my head.

I know Mark Hoppus is big on that too, writing really depressing lyrics over upbeat music.

Yeah, I don’t know. It’s interesting. On the surface you can just listen to the song and be cool with it, but another person might actually look at the lyrics, really read them, and go, “Oh, whoa. What’s going on here?” It just adds more layers to it. I try to write things that have or could have several different meanings, depending on how you look at it, especially with this album. On the surface it seems very sad, but I think it’s really a celebration of life.