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After a decade of pop-punk and indie success, Andrew McMahon brings the ghosts of his past to Austin

Katey Psencik
DOVER, DE - JUNE 20: Singer/songwriter Andrew McMahon performs onstage during day 3 of the Firefly Music Festival on June 20, 2015 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Firefly)

You probably know who Andrew McMahon is, but you don’t ?know you know who he is. You’ve heard his songs—they’re the kind of songs that a middle school friend would have burned onto a mix CD they shared with you, or that a high school crush would have played in their car while you sat together in their driveway, not speaking, just listening. Or maybe, more recently, they’re songs you’ve heard on Top 40 radio.

He’s the former frontman of Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin, now touring the country under the name Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness.

His story is a meandering one, filled with ?multiple changes in musical style, a cancer diagnosis, a marriage, a daughter and several changes in band names. But a few things have remained the same for McMahon, one of them being that his fans, from reformed emo and pop-punk kids now in their late 20s and early 30s living on nostalgia, to teenagers who have just discovered his modern projects, remain ever faithful.

We caught up with McMahon by phone while he was preparing for a tour date in Baton Rouge (though he calls California home) to discuss the evolution of his music, his connection to his fans and his latest album, “Zombies on Broadway.” This conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

Your sound has really evolved over the years—the early Jack’s Mannequin records have what I would call a beachy, Los Angeles vibe, whereas when you became Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, there was a shift, especially on this latest album, which has more of a big city feel. Was that deliberate, or did it just happen when you made the decision to record the album in New York City? 

I think it’s both deliberate and I also think there are some elements that are subconscious in the evolution of the sound of the records as they go along. I think I’m always looking for something new. You can hear it in the music I listen to. If I meditate too long in any one space or sound I start getting fatigued and wanting to move on. I guess I’m long suffering from some type of attention deficit, or I just get bored easily, I don’t know. New York’s always sort of been whispering in my ear to go there and be creative, and I think there was a thing that happened early in the writing process of the record where I ended up in the city for a session with two writer-producer guys that I had wanted to work with for a while, it just so happened they were in the city at the same point, so I jumped into the studio with them on some time off of tour. I felt like there was something about the city that was speaking to me more on this round than it has in the past. It was an idea I’d had for a long time to go to New York to make a record, and I decided after having this really positive experience writing “Fire Escape” there that I would sort of pack up and move the production out there. 

While “Zombies on Broadway” feels like New York, it doesn’t feel like a love letter to New York—it feels a bit like you’re working out how you feel about the city. When you announced the album, you said you were thinking you could “settle a score with a ghost.” How did it feel to work those feelings out on this album? 

I don’t know if I settled the score as much as I just moved the ghost around the map a little bit. [laughs] There’s a lot of stuff, obviously, for me in the city, having been diagnosed there back in ‘05. [Editor’s note: McMahon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2005.] That was a tricky memory to contend with. Obviously as an artist and somebody who tours for a living, you don’t avoid going to New York City, so I do have a lot of great memories there and I play there all the time, and I always love the shows. But I think I’ve always just sort of had a pretty intense reaction just showing up there. I tend to freak out a little bit. I tend to stay out a little bit too late and go a little harder than I probably should. I don’t know that that really changed. I think at least harnessing that and turning it into something creative and writing music that I was passionate about and creating a record that I loved, if nothing else, helped to turn some of that energy into something positive rather than feeling like it was some sort of monkey on my back. 

Speaking of staying out too late—I have to ask you about the one song on the record that made me cry when I heard it—“Birthday Song.” It feels like a reality check that everyone has given themselves at some point in their life—you have to slow down, you’re not as young as you used to be, etc. Tell me about the process of writing that song. It feels really raw compared to the other songs on the album. 

It was a really raw moment. I think it was the last or the second-to-last song I wrote for the record, and I think it was one of those moments where that energy that can be really inspiring about the city, and maybe some of the demons that I was inclined to fight out there, did get the best of me. I woke up on a really hard morning and I called my manager like, “I need a piano right now.” Usually I just work in the studio. They wrangled a keyboard for me, and I sat there for a really hot afternoon in Brooklyn, kind of at the epicenter of Williamsburg, just sort of staring out the window, writing that song. I think the beauty of what I get to do for a living is that in those hard moments, there’s a chance to find some redemption and sort of turn what could be a difficult situation into a life lesson of sorts, a crystallizing moment. Certainly, that song did that for me. It helped what I think is the final arc of the record and where this story lands, which is just like, “OK, you can have this difficult history and you can have all these things that you can chase down, but you also can’t jeopardize what you built in the name of chasing them down.” 

That song is a little more stripped-down compared to the rest of the album, and over the years with your music there’s been a shift from this piano-heavy pop-rock to more songs you can dance to. What caused that change? 

You can trace a line through my records and through my history as an artist into some version of—whether it’s popular music or music that’s on the edge of being popular and starting to sort of grow into its popularity—and how it’s influenced my sound. You know, I didn’t think I was in a pop-punk band in the 2000s, and I think there was some influence just from that being in the ether, that people thought I was in a pop-punk band. When Jack’s Mannequin came out, we were certainly lumped in with other bands of that era, The Killers, those types of bands that were doing sort of indie rock, or whatever people consider it. I listen to popular modern music. I listen to what’s on the fringe of what’s coming up because that fascinates me. I want to be a part of the conversation and contribute to what’s relevant and what’s modern. I think in a lot of ways, dance music, the way that it’s influencing everything across the spectrum of popular and underground music is incredibly relevant, and I’m no stranger to finding myself in the tent at the end of the festival night or on those playlists when I’m listening to new music. I think, absolutely, there are influences there. I would argue they’re probably no more prevalent than maybe some of the other modern influences or underground influences that made their way into my later records. It’s just kind of what’s out there right now. 

Despite how much your sound may change, I’ve noticed there’s always this theme lyrically of moving and transportation. There are also always references to the ocean or water and to outer space. What do those subjects mean to you, and why are they so prominent in your music? 

Every writer has their muse, has their things that anchor them creatively. I think the reason you’ve seen me moving through different spaces and finding new backdrops with New York City and changing my sound is because there’s obviously a risk when you have those influences over time. You don’t want them to come across as stale but you can’t deny that they exist. That’s where you find inspiration. For me, water is a simple one. I found myself in California at a really difficult time in my life, when things were coming apart, and I found my way to California with my mom and my sister and I think the sea was my first sense of strangely grounding and home that I had felt in a home town. I feel very tied to the ocean and to the element of water. Space is...for me, maybe it’s a metaphor, or maybe it means that I spend a lot of time looking upwards. I just think as young as four or five years old I was always fascinated by space, and I’ve always sort of had these moments where I felt a little bit like I was from some other planet. There is an alien sense about my origins. There have been times where I feel like I don’t particularly belong. It’s not disconcerting or disenfranchising, but there are times I feel a bit out of my element. That’s why you find me writing so much about other elements. 

While we’re talking about the evolution of your sound, it’s impossible to not talk about how long you’ve been doing this and the age range of your fans—they vary widely from people like me, who listened to Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin in our middle- and high-school years and still listen to you today, to people who are currently in their middle- and high-school years and listening to your music now, and maybe just discovering some of your older work. How does that feel? 

It’s honestly, I think, the greatest compliment that I get paid. I think it’s the byproduct of a lot of years of hard work and an effort to not develop this attitude—I have friends who have the attitude of, “The music we listened to in high school is the best, and everything after that is garbage.” It’s a very “kids these days” sense that I think happens to a lot of people who don’t make a point to pursue and listen to current music. They assume that all of a sudden, everything that has come out after their second year of college isn’t relevant anymore. I just don’t operate in that sphere. I’m constantly searching for new music that excites me. I feel like when I was a kid and I went and saw Billy Joel for the first time, or I went and saw R.E.M. for the first time or when I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, something that moved me more than anything aside from the music was just being in a crowd of people where the demographic was irrelevant. They were inspiring people of all ages and all walks of life to come to their music, and I think that is something I’ve always dreamed of. Starting off in a band that was largely thought of a teen sensation and seeing only young kids in the audience, it was awesome but I was always like, “Why are there no 20- or 30-year-olds here? I feel like this music makes sense for them.” And to have this kind of hysterical workaround, where I have this audience that’s grown up with me and then this new audience finding out about me through support tours with other bands or on the radio...this tour specifically has been so fulfilling to see a wide swath of humanity in the crowd. It makes me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, and that’s really fulfilling. 

I’ve been going to your shows for a long time and I think each one ages me about five years. I’m always one of the older ones now. 

Well, I’m on stage looking out at all of it so if you feel self-conscious you’ve got to wonder about me. [laughs] I think music keeps us all young. I think it’s when you stop going to shows out of some weird self-consciousness or out of some thought process that music has moved on without you, that’s when it really gets bad. I just say keep going. 

You seem to really have a unique, special connection with your fans. You do meet-and-greets after almost every show. I remember after a South by Southwest show in 2012 on Sixth Street, you hung out at the bar and talked to fans after your set (I remember you and I did shots of Jager and watched some fireworks out the bar window over a few Shiner Bocks). Why are those connections important to you? 

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons. On my worst day, I’m sure it’s about security and wanting to feel like I could get some extra praise or something, but I think on most days it’s a combination of just having a real reverence for my audience and a real appreciation of the fact that they spend their time and their money and their energy supporting something that is so deeply personal for me. And I think especially in the years after being sick and seeing how these connections have gotten stronger over time and how different it is from—not to take anything away from the Something Corporate era, but in those moments, it was this very fresh scene, and we all were caught up in the moment and everyone was really young. But now there’s a certain depth of emotion and a depth of connection that I think has come from sharing so much of myself with my audience for this many years and for their willingness to follow me through so much of this. I’ve asked a lot of the people who like my music. I’ve changed bands multiple times, and that’s something that so few people have accomplished successfully, and I’m very thankful that people have followed me through this journey. I really just think there is a mutual respect between myself and my audience, and I’m a pretty grateful dude when it comes to that. 

What does it mean to you to be opening for Billy Joel on several tour dates this year? 

I couldn’t even put it into words, I don’t think. He is one of a very short list of idols that I’ve sort of maintained over the years. He was the first for me. I could argue maybe it was like, Michael Jackson, I was like five, but Billy was the first writer who I connected with after discovering a piano and starting to write songs myself. When I was nine and I started playing the piano, my parents gave me Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volumes I and II. It was probably the day after I wrote my first song. My parents were like, “You need to listen to this.” There was something about Billy that became my Bible, and I listened to him on repeat. The River of Dreams record came out and I was so obsessed, and my parents got me tickets for my birthday. It was really the first musical idol that I found after I started writing music. The first concert I saw was the show that I think solidified this notion in my mind as a 10-year-old kid that I was going to be a singer, and a songwriter and I was going to play concerts for a living. And I was so certain that it was my experience following Billy Joel as a young kid that crystallized that vision in my mind, and it manifested itself so many years later in a career. 

What do you love about playing in Austin? 

It’s a great city. I got most of my tattoos in Austin over at True Blue Tattoo. Rachel at True Blue has been my artist of choice for years. The memories I have in that city—of playing my first South by Southwest with Jack’s Mannequin and having a piano totally collapse on stage at Stubb’s—I feel like it’s a city where I’ve done a lot of living and playing, and I think there’s a thing that happens when a community supports music in such a deep and fundamental way and makes it a part of their everyday existence. At the shows, it’s like there are professional fans. There’s a sense of appreciation from audiences that make a point of appreciating music so fully and so often. Sometimes, in one sense, it raises the bar—you don’t want to give a bad show. But in another sense, it relaxes you, because you know that people aren’t seeing their first show. You can give them a measured, long-form performance that isn’t all about the fire and intensity. It’s about actually playing your instrument well and performing a set with passion and skill, and I love that about Austin because I always feel that when we get on stage there. 

I know Austin is always glad you come back every tour. 

Hell, yeah! From the early Emo’s days to playing the Bat Bar and getting in a good amount of trouble there at a Warner Brothers South by Southwest Party, I’ve got too many memories not to come back and make some more. 

I think everyone has gotten in trouble at Bat Bar a few too many times. Anything else to add? 

Let’s sell this show out! I think it’s the best-selling out-of-town Emo’s show that we’ve had going so far, so I’m trying to get to that, I’m trying to close it out. I really think it’s the best production value and the best the band’s played since we started this adventure. I think if you like any of the music that I’ve made over the years, this is the show to catch.

?You can catch Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness at Emo’s Austin on Saturday, April 29Ticket and venue information can be found here.