Currently, there is a musical project documenting every stage of Andrew McMahon’s life; whether it’s the rebellious teenage angst that can be traced back to McMahon’s breakthrough pop-punk band Something Corporate to the matured pop-rock of Jack’s Mannequin. However, his latest project, Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness, is perhaps his most intriguing to date.
Blending classic-rock influences with a contemporary pop twist, the songs in his latest self-titled record document the birth of his daughter, Cecilia (who lends her name to the first song to be taken from the record ‘Cecilia and the Satellite’) as well as reflecting on his past and how different things could be with ‘High Dive’.
Andrew was kind enough to take time out of his hectic day to make a transatlantic call to speak to us about his diverse influences for the record, the story behind the album’s artwork, as well as a great anecdote about the recording of ‘Rainy Girl’.
First thing’s first, there’s a diverse range of influence I can hear in the album, from Tom Petty to Fun. What were your main influences going in?
Certainly! There was kind of a combination of things from listening to what’s on the radio these days. As far as the classic influences, I mean there’s a Petty influence, a lot of those records Jeff Lynne produced from the late 80s. Definitely Petty, Bruce Hornsby and Don Henley. They were all going with this idea of using drum programming but doing it in a way that still honoured a classic sound, and I felt like they were great rock musicians who did a great job of incorporating modern technology of the time into records that still making themselves feel like rock acts. In the last year or so, late 2013 was certainly a factor in the making this record, everything from the Vampire Weekend record to Lorde and Broken Bells. Those were a lot of the sounds I was taking in.
Were there any songs where you kind of just stopped and thought “Wow, this is way out of my comfort zone”?
My comfort zone was pretty broad on this record. A lot of the process of getting ready for this record, and the projects that I had worked on throughout the year or so leading up to writing this record, were all about pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I did a lot of writing sessions before the album started with different producers and different artists. I was in a spot where I felt particularly open. When it comes to the writing of the song, it’s a lot more focused on writing classic songs, the production I think is where we started stretching our comfort a little bit. Even songs where we went too far, we started reeling in when we got into the mixing process. I was in a comfort zone when we started writing the record.
You chose to work with a plethora of producers for this record but mainly Mike Viola, what led to this decision?
You know, Mike is a good friend of my manager and I sort of began the process of writing on my own. I wrote a handful of songs which ended up on the record and we started fleshing out seams. I got to a point where I was looking for collaboration, there are a number of ways you can get to the same ending when making records. I had gone from being in this cabin up in the hills of Topanga Canyon for a couple of months thinking “Okay, I think I know what the themes of this record are gonna be, now I need to focus on the actual sound and refine these songs”.
So, I met with Mike one day and I brought ‘Rainy Girl’ in and played it for him, and we tweaked it and we just had such a natural chemistry. We worked in his garage, he has two little girls and my wife was about six months away from having our little girl, and it was this kind of moment where there was just something about this guy in this moment of my life where I just feel like we’re connecting. I kind of call him the spirit guide for the record, he kind of walked me down the road of the album and into fatherhood and all these things. He was a really fantastic collaborator to have on board for the album for sure.
And then from that you self-produced ‘Rainy Girl’ as well. What made you want to strip everything back for that song?
It’s a funny thing, we had actually finished the record and I was on the road this summer with a couple of buddies supporting their tour. We were getting all the mixes back for this record and I was listening to it and it felt great, but there was just this feeling I had where I felt like we were just missing a moment. ‘Rainy Girl’ had always been in the mix of songs that we had talked about producing for the record and as it goes, you only have so much time. Literally, I was working on the album all the way up until the day that I left for tour and so we just hadn’t gotten around to it. As I was listening to the album I just thought that the one thing we were really missing from this record is just a really quiet broken down moment where the piano and the voice can speak. It just felt like there was something missing.
So I booked a day in the studio in Atlanta while we were on tour literally the night before I had a day off. We only had a couple of weeks left before the album needed to be turned in. We found this great studio in Atlanta and I went in and cut the piano and vocal and called a buddy of mine called Patrick Warren who has worked on a couple of my records and is a really talented arranger and I had him sort of add that sparse arrangement to it.
I mean, yeah, it’s ‘self-produced’, but really if you want to call me sitting at the piano singing a song and someone hitting record ‘produced’, then I guess that’s my hard work. But I really think the record needed something like that.
You also kept this record quite concise, how tough was the sequencing process, and what made you eventually leave off the B-sides coming out on the Japanese version of the record?
The truth is, for me, I’ve always liked 10 song records. It’s a funny thing because over the years, no matter how many times I try to get to a 10 song configuration, it alludes me. There’s always a song that I can’t seem to get myself to cut.
I think in general with this record, I tried to be really focused from the writing process to the finishing. I think I was just hellbent on this idea that there were songs that I loved that were going to get left behind, but in the digital age, it’s not like any of those B-sides, once they’re out, aren’t available to the entire world as it is.
I wanted to focus on making a tight configuration that people can listen to on short drives and hear it start to finish. Short albums have always been my favourite records like the Blue Album by Weezer is 10 songs and so is Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. There’s a long history of great 10 song records and I was hoping to add to that.
There seems to be an overall concept with the artwork, did you play a part in the ideas behind that?
It’s interesting, the biggest role I had in the artwork (besides choosing the photography once it had been shot) was actually picking the photographer. The photographer who shot the cover is this guy named Jimmy Marble. I’ve been in love with his work for a really long time, probably for the last couple of years. I just followed his Instagram, someone really turned me onto his photography and he’s one of the few people who I actually follow on Instagram. Just about everything that he puts up just moves me and over the years, I’ve continued to dig into the things he puts up on his website, he does a lot of little short films. It was just something about his eye that I was really connecting to throughout the whole process of making the album. We were actually just referencing his images for the cover of the album. At some point, one of my bandmates came on the bus and had a little bit to drink, and I was talking about his photography and my bandmate just says “Why don’t you just call him up and see if he’ll do the record?” and so we did. We called him and he said yes.
I gave him carte blanche, which has not always been my thing, but I trusted his eye so much and we had about half the record mixed at that point so we sent him about everything we had. He sent me about four different set ups, different styles that he would be interested in shooting in and just asked me to pick one. We picked the one that had the more natural element. It was his concept to have the two girls on the front and to shoot these women out at the beach in Malibu and I saw that image and immediately thought “that’s it”, and we built the rest of the packing around the cover so that it all kind of made sense.
The second portion of our interview with Andrew will be available within the coming days. Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness is available to purchase now through Vanguard Records.
You can listen to a stripped down version of the lead single ‘Cecilia and the Satellite’ below.