Andrew McMahon On Drive-Ins, Mixed Tapes, & 15 Years of 'Everything In Transit'
The singer breaks down the classic Jack's Mannequin album in honor of its 15th anniversary.
Over the past six months, the COVID-19 pandemic has given way to a handful of new portmanteaus that have entered our daily lexicon. There's maskne (acne you get from wearing a mask); quarantinis (weird cocktails you make at home with whatever ingredients you have on hand); zumping (getting dumped over Zoom); and now, thanks to Andrew McMahon, a new one: honkore, a term to describe the crowd's demanding of a concert encore as indicated by a chorus of car honks.
If you were anywhere within a 20 mile radius of Monmouth, New Jersey, on Monday or Tuesday night around 9:30 p.m., chances are you were one of the first to hear a honkore firsthand, as McMahon took over the Monmouth Park parking lot for two nights of drive-in concerts. For many music fans, it was one of the first (and potentially only) chances to see live music in 2020; for the former Something Corporate frontman, it was a chance to try something new and get back onstage, after his summer tour with AWOLNATION was canceled. It also marked a special anniversary: the 15th anniversary of Jack's Mannequin's debut album Everything in Transit.
For two nights only, the California resident, who put on three nights of this drive-in concept in Anaheim earlier this year, took to the parking lot to perform the fan favorite album in full, followed by additional hits from his years in Something Corporate and his current project, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. As for the honkore, McMahon capped it off with SoCo's "I Woke Up in a Car," a tongue-in-cheek nod to his audience of a sea of cars. Ahead of his two-night run, here, McMahon spoke to NYLON about getting creative with live performances, his unexpected quarantine project, and, of course, 15 years of Everything in Transit.
How have you been spending your quarantine for the past few months?
I've been lucky that I live in a beautiful place and I've got an awesome wife and daughter. We've spent more time together than ever, which is, I think, the silver lining in all this. It's kind of a thing every day to figure out what to do so that there's a little structure and I don't go crazy. I'm used to being on the move, traveling constantly, so there've been a couple of moments where I just feel like getting in my car and driving somewhere, but I think that I'm really fortunate. I know there are a lot of people who are going through a lot more .
Have you been writing music, or have you been taking this time to recalibrate?
It's funny, I've actually been working on a book project for most of the time that I have been in quarantine. It was something that had been sort of hanging around and talked about for a while, and when I realized that we were going to spend several months inside, and that I probably wasn't going to be touring and all that, I was like, "Maybe this is a good time to try and stretch and exercise a new muscle and figure out how to be creative in a different way."
Can you tell me anything about it, or is it very under wraps right now?
It's pretty under wraps. I guess the best thing I can say is it's some version of my story at this point, but it's really focused, mostly, on the parts of my story that haven't been told. There's been clever devices used to do that, but I'm still figuring it out, to some extent, so I don't want to blow it.
How have you found exercising that muscle, compared to songwriting? How different is it?
It's interesting. Obviously, it's different in a lot of ways, but I would say that when it's good and when it's working, it feels very much the same. When I'm writing a song, if it's really happening, it starts happening fast. You push and push and all of a sudden you get to the end of the session, or whatever it is you're doing, and you feel like you've done something special. When I'm writing something that feels good and I feel like I'm telling the story well and finding language that's colorful but also tells the truth, that's when it's the most similar to the experience.
This month marks the 15th anniversary of Everything in Transit. Does it feel like 15 years since the album came out?
It feels 50 years since the album came out. This record is tied up in so much tumult and self-discovery and the craziness of it being released on the day that I got my stem cell transplant. It's almost hard to pull those two things apart. I'm a completely different person than I was when that record came out, just because I had to learn how to live again. I look at that as the delineator between two lives.
Is it hard, then, to bring back these songs and play them live? Does it drudge up all these memories of a difficult time in your life?
No, not necessarily. There are certainly memories that come back as we play older music. It's actually one of the things I love about playing deep into my catalog of songs. Sometimes if you let a song rest for a minute and you come back to it, you'll be hit with some remembrance of the time that you were writing it or what was going on in life that you just haven't accessed in a while. In that way, for a guy who has a pretty sh*tty memory, it's kind of a nice way to activate it.
I'm incredibly close to this record. In a weird way, I think it is what brought my girlfriend at the time — my wife now — back together. It’s [the story] of our breakup and ultimately our reconciliation. There's some hard history in there, for sure, and some things that were tricky, but it was also a bizarrely joyful time and a really creative and exciting time to be making music and to be in the world. There was so much happening in my life, with the Something Corporate thing [in 2004, the band decided to go on hiatus] and I was just traveling like crazy. I had bought my first little townhouse with all my buddies from high school and it was kind of my last hurrah of being purely young and dumb. I'm really fond of it.
"I'm a completely different person than I was when that record came out, just because I had to learn how to live again. I look at that as the delineator between two lives."
When you're playing those songs that are ultimately breakup songs for the woman you ended up marrying, do you ever have that moment live on stage of “huh, life is weird”?
Yeah. It's interesting, when I wrote the record, obviously it being a breakup record, [but] I think, in my bones, I knew that we would end up back together. In a weird way, it's like I was writing it to chart the experience, I guess. There was so much certainty, in my mind, that this was a break and not a breakup, but it was really painful, in that sense.
I still hear them as love songs in a way. But, I was laughing with [my wife] Kelly the other day and she was talking about how Lin Manuel-Miranda, when he has to kiss another actress on stage, she will boo in the audience. So Kelly was saying that when she hears “Miss Delaney,” she gives a big thumbs down. That's the one song.
When it came out, EIT was called a concept album; do you still see it as such?
All of our marketing material for the record is like “this is a story...” To me, it became that when all of a sudden there was this beginning, middle, and end to it. You start the record and set the scene in California, getting stoned every day and living life like that and just hoping that you can live like that for your whole life.Then you meet these characters and you realize that there's a heartbreak and there are these friends that are taking care of you through the whole thing and it ends with this kind of cliffhanger. “Are they back together or not?”
Once I really was able to structure the track list, it had this loose storytelling throughout the placement of the songs. That's when I was like, "You know what, I feel comfortable calling this a concept record." I was in the hospital when the album was mastered, and I thought it was finished, and then I had all this extra time because I was sitting in a hospital bed. I spent a month just tweaking this, running over the list of songs — basically they had to pry it out of my hands.
I’ve read that “The Mixed Tape” was based on an actual mix tape you made. Is that correct?
There was a mix tape for sure. I had done it [around] Christmas. I made these mix tapes throughout the breakup ... It was so corny that I had this journal that I wrote in every day. Every time I heard a song that kind of cut me, I would write it down.
When you’re playing a big show like the ones in New Jersey this week and playing from all of your different bands and projects, how do you determine what makes the setlist?
There's always songs that are favorites that I really like to play. They tend to overlap with the fans' favorites. As any live performer will probably tell you, when people clap and cheer the loudest for something, you're like, "Oh, probably want to do that again." I usually kind of work from my most current project backward. So there will be a song or two off the newest record and then because we only have a couple hours we'll just jam in the kind of big favorites that people want to hear.
I almost always play “I Woke Up in a Car.” We'll do “Cecilia and the Satellite” and “Fire Escape.” There's really not a ton of rhyme or reason to it. A lot of it's a feel thing. Sometimes, if I've been on tour and I've played certain songs from the catalog , I'll retire them for six months and bring back other ones. It's really just about keep in the energy up and making sure everybody has a good time.
Are there any songs that you are surprised have become fan favorites?
Not necessarily. I think most of the time if something is a fan favorite, it's probably because it's a good song. I mean obviously there's “Konstantine” from the Something Corporate catalog. I think that's what surprised me the most at the time that it became the thing that it became. That just sort of blew my mind. I mean there were a couple of Something Corporate songs that I was scratching my head about because of the way they came about. But for the most part there's some sort of connective tissue between a song that people like and the songs that I like playing.
Has your songwriting approach changed over the years, or is it still the same as it was when you first started?
The short answer is yes, it has, but it's just that there's just more layers to it in the sense that I write in different ways [now]. I used to be able to strictly sit at the piano, write a song, then be done with it. I would bring that song to the studio, where we would hash it out and try and make it work. And if it didn't, it would die on the doorstep and if it did it would end up on a record.
Now, I actually really enjoy writing while producing for another artist. I think it's become a sort of second chapter in my writing career. We did a lot of that on Transit where I would come in and I'd have two verses and then a chorus, and we'd start working on the production, and I'd write the bridge in the studio. That's the first place] I started doing that, so it's evolved over time. But there are still days and records where I just want to sit down and do it the old way. When I did the last album for the Wilderness, Upside Down Flowers, that was just me sitting in my garage at a piano for a month. I'm doing the song, [bringing it] in, and that was it. It has evolved in the sense that I'm willing to do it in different ways from record to record just to keep myself sharp and keep the writing process fresh.
You released a new song, "Get On My Wave," during quarantine, and I know you were apprehensive to put it out during this time. How are you feeling now that it's out? Are you glad you released it?
It's just a peculiar time in general. I'll be perfectly honest, I just got out of my record contract on my last deal. It was my last album. I'm basically this sort of free agent. Me and my management company were like, "Look, you've got a song and you've got some shows. Let's just put it out." Not everything has to be this old school thing that we used to do when an album would come out, throw a little party, and do the whole thing.
So we just said, "Let's put some music into the world." That people get it and they dig it, that's awesome and we'll probably do some more of that. I would be lying not to say I'm looking forward to getting back into some sort of structured scenario where I actually plan on making a record and put my head down and focus on just that, because I think there's something to that in my world. Knowing that I've got a task and knowing that I've got a goal and a deadline. But I love the song and I love working with King Tuff, who is one of the sweetest, most talented dudes that not everybody knows about yet.
Tell me about the first iteration of these drive-in shows in California. How did they go?
It was great. It was a learning process. We were not the exact first people to do it, but we were pretty close as far as putting on a show like this. To say I was nervous is an understatement because I was terrified that something would go wrong, or we wouldn't get something right, and people would have a bad time, or we wouldn't nail the public safety aspect of it and we would get criticized. There are a lot of factors. But by the time it got to the second night, we had ironed out so many of the kinks, and by the time it got to the third night it's just like, "Wow, this is cool. I can see doing this again," and that's when we decided to pursue this one that we're doing out here in New Jersey.
What were some of the unexpected nuances of putting on a show like that that you might not have thought about?
People having to sort of learn "oh, I've got to turn my car stereo on," and do all that. The first night, we were making stage announcements, but people weren't hearing the stage announcements because they didn't have their FM radios turned on, which is where the sound was coming from. So my agent was running through the aisles telling people, “Turn on your radios.” By night two, we brought in some extra PA reinforcement. It became a lot easier. As an artist and as a fan, you kind of make this weird social contract like, "Hey, we're going to do this weird thing together because we want to entertain you and we want to put people back to work." There's been enough heaviness, let's have some fun. So it was peculiar at first, but it became this very cathartic, beautiful thing.
What is it like just to look out in a sea of cars?
It's bizarre, but people end up sitting on their cars or standing by their doors. There ends up being kind of something beautiful when you see these people in their little pods, without some drunk guy spilling a beer on your back. It's just your best friend and you get to do it in your own little dance space, which I think ends up being pretty cool.
Look, we're resilient and we find ways. I think the first one of these concerts was done in Denmark or somewhere at the beginning of the pandemic. I said, “We need to figure out how to do this. This is going to be the thing. Let's be some of the first people on the scene.” It really struck me in a way that was really powerful. To see that we were in a position to kind of say "f*ck you" to this virus for a hot minute and give people entertainment, it felt really good.