Into The Wilderness with Andrew McMahon: Q&A


Photo: Brendan Walters

Andrew McMahon is no stranger to change. After fronting two successful pop-rock bands in the 2000s, he scored a victory over acute lymphoblastic leukemia, weathered pop music's EDM inception, and underwent a series of professional and personal upheavals, the most recent involving stepping into the role of a new parent. While today, McMahon is ostensibly a different person than the fluffy-haired twenty-something rocking out in sandals from behind a piano circa 2004, at heart, he's still the same narrator as before, wryly clairvoyant and keenly perceptive of his own nostalgia. This time around, McMahon comes to us from his new project, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness - a stone’s throw away from the piano-driven garage-pop that characterized his last decade as an indie musician. We caught up with the singer to discuss his new music, then asked him for some life advice, which, we are happy to report, comes from the expert seat of Experience. Read on below for our interview, and stream Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness.

Ones To Watch: Having been in the music industry for so long, you've been through so many reincarnations. What's the biggest takeaway?

Andrew McMahon: I think if I've learned anything, it's about staying inspired. You get to this dangerous territory when you get too far in your head and you're not next to the muse, so to speak. Don't stay in situations that don't inspire you. The business is what it is, it's a fucking treacherous business to be in. But I tend to find if you focus on the songs and try not get too bogged down in the other stuff, you tend to come out on top.

Ones To Watch: Who or what first inspired you to start making music?

McMahon: Ultimately I wrote my first song about an uncle of mine who had passed away. The piano was the way I really processed that loss. I was 8 or 9 at the time.

Ones To Watch: You've always been an incredible storyteller. What story are you trying to tell right now?

McMahon: There's some obvious stuff. I have a new little person in my life. There's always an interesting thing that happens when you have a kid. You start seeing things through a fresh pair of eyes. You see how amazed they are by everything. It's put some wonder back in my life. And I think I really took time around the pregnancy to savor the moment.  

I wanted to be careful about making it not too sappy. I ended up back in South Orange County after being in L.A. for pretty much the whole duration of Jack's Mannequin. A lot of this stuff was about coming back to the beach and to this more peaceful existence, and reflecting on those transitions. There were some loops to be closed from the Everything in Transit days. Focusing on family gave me the opportunity to reflect on some of the misses and trickiness of what life was like out here. Getting back here helped me reflect on that. It was a chance to both dig back and also to project towards the future.

Ones To Watch: Music-wise, you released a very electronic EP earlier this year. What can you say about the influence of EDM on you?

McMahon: If you listen to any of my records, they're all staged in the climate of what's out. I think even if you listen to the first Jack's record, there are a lot of hidden synths, which I probably would have pushed a lot harder if I were allowed to at that point. The reason why electronic music is so popular now is because of the access. We live in an age where your computer is an instrument. It's a huge benefit to music, personally. For me it was a chance to explore new sounds. You can do so much with certain things… for me the next frontier was to be able to paint with some new colors and to experiment with them. I think you'll find the LP is more towards what I've done in the past. There's a lot of live drums. There's definitely a good helping of synths but there's a lot of piano too and live bass. 

Ones To Watch: So you collaborated with some new people on your new record. If you could create a superband, who would your band be?

McMahon: That's a very tricky question. I'd pretty much try to join The Heartbreakers, if I really had my druthers. To me that's just about the best rock band out there. Those records bookmarked time for me from being a kid to my early twenties. I love the simplicity of Tom Petty's writing and his ability to make the ordinary feel special. He's really got a way of balancing popular songwriting vs being really incredible and making a pretty badass, tough sound.

Ones To Watch: How about anyone in pop?

I love Lorde. I was on that record really early and all the EPs when they came out. She did something that I'm glad is out there, it's so minimal, which is really special, and her perspective is incredible, even though she's singing about being a young person in the world you can relate to it on any side of the coin. Her voice and everything else, this minimal landscape around it, it's a really cool piece of art.

Ones To Watch: Can you ever see yourself doing something minimalist like that?

You try, you try. When we went in the studio the goal was to try and keep things as sparse as possible. It ends up sounding pretty big, when all is said and done, but its a lot fewer sounds than any record I've made. Some of that inspiration comes from Lorde's record and records like that. But certainly the goal was to give the vocal a lot of space.

Ones To Watch: Can you speak to the bigger themes on your record?

McMahon: There are bits from as far back as ten years ago. With this record, I was back in the town where I wrote Everything In Transit. An interesting thing happened, there was this alchemy. When I left town to tour… and then coming back to town as a married couple with my wife, about to start a family. A lot of things forced me to answer questions about what happened there. There are stories that are pure reflection from that time.

Most of my records tend to be pretty autobiographical, but there are these departures. There's a song on the record also inspired by my time in the canyon, called "Canyon Moon" - it almost has this 1970's Topanga Canyon vibe about this girl just packing up and leaving town and disappearing. I think that story informed this escapist fantasy that shows up in most of my records, somewhere.

Ones To Watch: It's interesting because Everything in Transit was like the West side record, and this one seems to be your East side record.

McMahon: There's definitely references to Echo Park, which was a huge part of my life at one time. But then there is this beach vibe. So yeah, these images definitely pop up throughout the record.

Ones To Watch: If you could give your 14-year-old self any advice, what would it be?

McMahon: I think the thing I would still tell myself today is to take a deep breath before you act, specifically in your personal relationships. I could have benefited a lot from taking time to react to things because I always had such a fire and an energy. I think collecting yourself before you make huge decisions is a good thing [laughs]. I think learning to chill, which every kid needs to learn.

Ones To Watch: What would be your best advice for someone who is heartbroken?

McMahon: Don't talk to that person for a while! That would be my first piece of advice. Because I think there is nothing more dangerous than a broken hear that chooses to stay mired in that space.

To use a broken heart as an opportunity to grow is a really positive catalyst, if you embrace it that way.