Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness will release their sophomore LP, Zombies on Broadway, later this week. I spoke with McMahon on the phone about the new record’s pop-leaning direction, his ever-evolving sound, the way family has defined his last few albums, and whether or not he’d ever consider writing a memoir. We also spoke briefly about next year’s 10-year anniversary of Jack’s Mannequin’s The Glass Passenger and whether or not fans can expect any special tours or reissues to mark the occasion.
So the album is out next Friday, a week from today, I guess! Do you have any big plans for release day?
You know what? Not so much for release day. We have a big in-store the night before the release and then on release day I’m going to actually kind of get away with my wife and get out of town for a night.
That sounds great. So, a few years ago now, “Cecilia and the Satellite” really took off for you. It cracked the Hot 100 and landed in a movie trailer or two. What was it like to see that kind of success after so many years sort of “grinding away” in the music industry?
You know, I think there was some element of “redemption” or “vindication” or something I guess. (Laughs) But I think more than anything it was sort of a testament to hard work and where that can get you if you love what you do and you do it for the right reasons. And yeah, it felt great. It was definitely a nice moment for me and for so many of the people who have worked on my records for a number of years to actually kind of have one get through the gates, you know?
Right, yeah. Well, and you’ve been able to transition your career now twice, first from Something Corporate into Jack’s Mannequin and then from Jack’s Mannequin into The Wilderness project. What inspired you to draw the line after People & Things and go in a new direction?
I mean, I think, truthfully, I was just exhausted after People & Things. It had been such a great run with Jack’s, but I think there was just a lot of…there was a lot of tension toward the end. Not even necessarily personal tension as much as just with myself and the project and the idea of moving forward. There was so much of that project that I tied and attached so closely to having gotten sick, and it felt like the right moment to say “I told that story and told it well” and…I don’t know, I just felt ready for a new adventure I guess.
Yeah, and it sort of…I don’t know if you intended to do this when you were writing People & Things…did you intend that as a last record for that project? Because the end of that record is about coming home, and the first song on Everything in Transit is leaving home, so it’s sort of a nice bookend.
It felt to me like it was the last record. You know, I recorded that album in two or three different configurations before it actually landed on what people heard on People & Things. And I think by the time I had sort of scrapped one record and gone into the second and there was so much turmoil at the record company at that point and so many people were getting laid off and new people were coming in that I didn’t particularly care for, I think it just got to that moment where I said “This is going to be the end of the line for this project.” And I knew fairly early, I think, in the process that it was going to be the end.
So I heard this new album for the first time yesterday when we finally nailed down a time to talk, so I’ve listened through probably four or five times now. And the first thing that struck me about Zombies on Broadway is that, you know, it’s obviously a “New York Album.” And how that sort of refers back to Everything in Transit which is very much a California album. Was that parallel in your mind as you were writing and recording this album?
There were certainly parallels. In some ways, for me, the New York record was supposed to be the follow-up to Everything in Transit, and I didn’t get there because of what happened and getting sick and sort of getting into a different mindset, and I decided not to go to New York to make the follow-up to Transit. And I think where we landed after the last record I felt strong and felt like I was ready to make good on that promise that I made to myself several years ago to do an album on the East Coast.
So yeah, there are parallels, but obviously I’m in a much different place now than I was when I made Transit. But I think there were elements that felt similar, and certainly, getting to that place where I was ready to get to the East Coast and make an album, there is a moment where you realize that there are parallels between past projects and music making, for sure.
With both this album and the last album you’ve gone in a very pop-centric direction. But I think especially the first half of this album is very far in that direction. And while I think there are songs that would appeal to any fan of your past projects, especially the last two, “Love and Great Buildings” and “The Birthday Song,” I think there are some others that might be a bit more of a challenge for people who sort of come from the pop-punk/emo days, I guess. When you make a record like this is there any doubt that creeps in when you think about how your very longtime fans might react?
I don’t know if I’d call it “doubt.” I mean, if you listen to any of those early pop-punk records from the early 2000s, they were about as unambiguously “pop” records as you could consider. (Laughs)
Right, right, yes.
I mean, if you listen, they were like quintessential pop in a lot of senses. Especially if you think of songs of mine from those early 2000s records, songs like “I Woke up in a Car.” They may have been placed into a category or a genre at some point, but those are pop songs.
I think, for me, I try to focus on what inspires me and what gets me excited about making music, and that’s where I was on this record. Certainly, there are moments where you put out a song like “So Close,” and I was biting my nails as that one dropped because I think in a certain sense there are textures and sounds on that song that are gonna be new for fans of mine who have listened to my records for a long time. But, surprisingly for me, I woke up that morning and that song had gone over better than anything I’d put out in two years, and the reaction was insane.
You can’t make music for people that you’re worried about impressing. You have to make music for people who are excited to get on board and go on a ride with you. I think the reason that my projects have survived for as long as they have is because I’ve consistently changed directions and done new things and challenged my fans and made new fans along the way, because I don’t like to do the same thing twice. And I just have to stick with that and hope people get where I’m going. And maybe they get off for a song or two or a record or two and come back. Or maybe I lose ’em. But I just gotta keep on doing my thing.
The one that seemed like the biggest leap for me, I guess, was “Don’t Speak for Me,” which it sounded like you had written for someone else. Is that right?
It’s true. Yeah, that is true. I wrote it with and for another artist.
Can you tell me who you wrote it for, or is that confidential?
No, it’s not confidential! I mean, he’s a writer on the track. Guy named Ryan Beatty. He’s a young artist and I knew his manager and we ended up getting in a room and writing a song, originally for a record for him. But by the time I was through recording this record or getting to the end of recording this record he hadn’t released it yet. And I kindly asked if he would mind me taking a shot at it for my record, and he was gracious and said “Yeah.”
I think the beauty of this record in a lot of ways–and just in general the concept of writing for other artists, and thinking of myself more as a songwriter than like a genre-based singer or artist–it puts me in a position where I can write a lot of different types of songs. And that ends up giving you a lot of freedom and a lot of flexibility to experiment with different styles and different sounds. On this record, once I got through most of it, I said “I can take a chance and do a song like this. It isn’t like something I’ve recorded in the past, but I’m gonna take a shot.” And that’s how it ended up on the record.
I feel like both of the Wilderness albums have a core theme of family running through them, which I guess makes sense considering where you are in your life. Especially on this album, with songs like “Walking in My Sleep” and “The Birthday Song” that are very much in that theme. How has being a husband and a father changed how you write songs?
I don’t know that it’s changed how I write songs. I mean, in a time-management sense, just as far as having a family, there’s certainly an aspect of…you know, like there have been periods of my career where I would just pull the ripcord and disappear for a month somewhere. Like, obviously, that’s not exactly on the table anymore. (Laughs)
But I think there’s an element of focus that comes, especially with fatherhood. I’ve been married for a long time, so that’s not as new a factor in my career and my writing. But it’s just like anything, really: you write about the things that are in your life. At least I do. That’s a big part of it. So whatever the strange sort of subconscious dilemmas of the day that a person deals with when they have a family, there’s a juxtaposition of those dilemmas against the realities of your life, and how you work those things out becomes the song, becomes the music.
But I think in another sense, it’s motivated me to work hard and be better at my craft than ever. When you have a kid that you’re raising, and that you want to set a good example for, and that you want to provide for, you work hard. You work harder a lot of times. And I think for me, the last two records have, if nothing else, lit a fire under my ass to be the best version of myself that I can be.
Do you have a favorite song on this record, or one that you’re really looking forward to bringing out on tour?
Gosh, it’s hard. You sort of ebb into different modes and like certain songs at different times. I think, consistently, “Walking in My Sleep” has been a big one for me.
I think that’s my favorite too.
There’s something about that song. It just has so much heart and it comes from such a real place, and I’ve always been really happy with the way that one turned out. But it’s tough! I mean, I love “Love and Great Buildings.” That was one of the later tracks that I wrote for the record and I’m a big fan of that. But you know, truthfully, I look at it as a whole piece of work. I haven’t been in a position to make a record that is this succinct and focused, so I see it as a whole as opposed to it’s parts.
From the liner notes of the Everything in Transit vinyl pressing, I can tell that you write very well and very vividly about your inspiration and your creative process. I mean, obviously you’re a good songwriter, but you’re also a good prose writer.
And you have a very interesting story to tell. Have you ever thought about writing a memoir?
I’ve thought about it. I’ve been approached to do it, and it was my book to lose and I lost it, because I sat on it too long. It’s hard for me to say whether or when that will happen. I think at some point it will. But, I love writing so, yeah, it’s a possibility.
Speaking of the Everything in Transit anniversary pressing that we got, I guess that next year is already 10 years on The Glass Passenger. Are you going to do something similar for that? With a tour and a reissue? Or is that not in the works at all yet?
I would be surprised on a tour. Perhaps a reissue. You know, you never know. It’s hard for me to say for sure. I tend to want to stay away from those 10-year anniversary things. I was able to get, what? I think nine or ten Jack’s Mannequin reunion dates together?
Yeah, it was pretty short, I think.
So who knows. Maybe we’ll try to put something together and do one or two shows, just to say thanks. But yeah, I would think a vinyl would be in order, though, for sure. I would imagine that we’d probably do a reissue.
Yeah, because those go for $300 on eBay, which is kind of nuts.
It’s pretty insane. Yeah, I’ll definitely…I mean, I love doing the vinyl. The vinyl reissues are always fun, so I’ll try to get one of those out there for sure.
Okay! Yeah, I’d appreciate that. I know a lot of people on the site would too, because…I mean, my brother has a copy that he got for like 15 bucks at a record store in his town when it came out, but…
There you go! There you go!
But you know, they just vanish. And then they get flipped on eBay for a fortune.
Every time I do the reissues, I try to make enough so that everyone who wants will get one, and I try to limit how many you can buy, just to do my best to keep them out of the scalper hands. But no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, whether it’s with concert tickets or with these merch products, somebody somewhere snatches a bunch up and starts putting ’em out for way more than they should be selling them for.
Right, yeah. Actually, one more thing I was curious about that just popped into my head.
I went to your concert in Grand Rapids. I think last June?
Oh cool! This recent one?
Yeah, yeah. And I was sort of near the back because I think we got there late and then the opener left because the singer was sick or something…
That’s right! Oh yeah, I remember that! Of course!
And then you came back and you pulled me aside and a few other guys and we helped you with the duck.
I was wondering, what is the story behind the inflatable duck?
You know, there isn’t much of a story other than like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny to ride an inflatable duck into the audience?” And that’s about the story, you know? I mean, for me, truthfully, the deepest version of the story I could tell about all those stage gags is that I just…I find that, at this particular moment, with how nutty everything is in the world, that anything we can do to make our show as fun as it can be, and keep people present, and sort of keep people focused on remembering that there are good and funny and fun things going on in the world, that’s I think the best thing that I can contribute to the conversation right now. So, occasionally that means riding an inflatable rubber duck through the crowd.