For those in the know, AndrewMcMahon has been an underground sensation, a wunderkind who spent his formative years fronting the piano-punk pop of Something Corporate, only to shift gears a few years back into his newest project, Jack’s Mannequin. His latest record with the group, an elegantly upbeat offering entitled The Glass Passenger, has found a wide audience and a cherry opening slot for the Fray all summer long. Keyboard met up with McMahon at his house in Los Angeles to get the scoop on the new record and what it’s like being a piano rocker in the 21st century.
If their debut album Everything in Transit was the opening salvo of a newbie band, 2009’s The Glass Passenger is a transcendent step-up, a catchy and listenable journey through McMahon’s stories of love, life, and loss that moves from full-on, upbeat rock (“Spinning”) to melancholy introspection (“Annie Get your Telescope”) and all that lies between. Now that Jack’s Mannequin has established itself, it’s delivered a sophomore effort more than worthy of both old fans and new. “Glass Passenger was so involved and intense,” says McMahon. “It took the better part of a year, and a portion of a second year. But I’m always writing songs. It usually takes a few months to digest what’s happening in my life.”
GROWING UP AT THE PIANO
“I discovered piano when I’d just turned nine,” says Andrew. “I played eight to ten hours a day, usually until my parents told me to shut up. My mother was a good player, and I started playing by ear. After a year of that, I began writing songs, and found outlets to perform them at school assemblies. Eventually, I got lessons.”
Lessons or not, McMahon had something he needed to express and the piano provided a great outlet. “It was more personal experience that drove me to sit down at the piano,” he says. “I had always been infatuated with it in some sense. I had always written words. What drove me to the piano was having something to put my poems to.” One piano man in particular stood out as an influence. “Early on, I was a Billy Joel freak,” McMahon says. “I would listen to him all day long, every record. I was obsessed with it. My favorite was Songs in the Attic, which had the really early stuff like ‘Summer Highland Falls.’ I was so young when River of Dreams and Stormfront came out, and I loved those. Then I learned in retrospect that those weren’t considered his best records. But I still have a place in my heart for all of it.”
McMahon’s first band, Something Corporate, formed during his sophomore year of high school, and began playing — and winning — the requisite Battles of the Bands here and there. The only problem was that there weren’t many gigs for underage groups besides parties and said Battles of the Bands. “Eventually before my senior year, two of the guys had to leave for college, so we did a goodbye show for them,” McMahon says. “Since nobody would give us a gig, we agreed to paint a playhouse if they let us use it for one night. We had 300 to 400 people show up! After that, we were flying guys back to do gigs.”
Something Corporate went strong for a few years until, like many bands, they needed a break. “We were all burnt out but we still toured,” says McMahon. “Not having an album to support took the pressure off and I really had a bang-up time the year that I was working on the Jack’s record.” And as it happens, what started out as a side project turned into a full-time gig around 2005. “Jack’s Mannequin didn’t start as a band,” says McMahon. “It was a moniker to apply to the stuff that I was doing on the side. At that point, I felt a need to split off and get out of the communal thought process of making songs. I wanted to see what happened when I thought of a song in my head and just tried to drive it as hard as I could in that direction. That’s how it began, as a studio project.”
Jack’s Mannequin emerged as the vehicle for a maturing songwriter and lyricist to further hone his craft. “It was a superintense and fun process that started as a very impassioned project,” says McMahon. “Myself and my producer Jim Wirt were really in a zone together when we did [2005’s Everything in Transit]. Originally I didn’t intend to put it out. It could have been Something Corporate demos at first. But then it took on this life of its own.
“Frankly, we were blown away that it did as well as it did. It’s approaching 300,000 copies, which is what the Something Corporate records did. I didn’t expect it to be as smooth of a transition as it was. It’s funny — the shows are as full as they were from the Something Corporate days and I would say the core of the Jack’s base is original Something Corporate fans. But at the same time, there are a lot of Jack’s fans who aren’t aware of Something Corporate. I think we’ve done a good job of trying to keep Jack’s Mannequin it’s own thing. Bring over the people who want to come but don’t jam it down anybody’s throat.”
As a touring and recording musician, McMahon draws his inspiration from a wide variety of artists, though mostly from the old school. “I love the new Kings of Leon record, but I’ve gone back to Wilco, tons of Tom Petty, the Beach Boys, and now the Beatles, especially Revolver,” he says. “As to newer bands, I like Blonde Redhead and Autolux.”
“We did a Something Corporate show in 2000 with Ben Folds and I loved him,” he continues. “Being a kid who grew up playing piano, to finally have a dude rock it and be so good [was amazing]. I always say I play piano out of necessity, because I need to write. But Ben Folds has that gift. There seems to be a lot more piano in rock these days, which I think is great. If you think about the foundation of rock ’n’ roll, there was always a piano or B-3 player in the mix.” So does fronting a band on piano mean you have to out-shred everyone on the scene? Not necessarily, but it doesn’t mean you can coast. “I try to be as much of a player as I possibly can and I try and push myself on every record.”
We turned our discussion to music education, and the impact on budding musicians. “I think training is super important,” he says. “I studied for a good handful of years but when you’re young, I don’t think your appreciation for classical is what it is later in life. Most of the people I know who got force-fed classical music don’t play anymore. It’s about finding your art form,” he continues. “I love to play piano, and you’re seeing piano reemerge as a focal point in a lot of popular music. But like anything, it’s another tool to communicate art. Serving the song is the big thing.”
ROOTS OF WRITING
Even though he knows he has a larger audience listening to his music, McMahon still feels he can connect with the more solitary reasons he began writing in the first place. “If I didn’t, I don’t think that I’d do it,” he says. “You know that eventually something that you like is going to end up being heard, and sometimes you’ll overthink it. I find more often than not, as soon as I start thinking about that, that’s what tanks a piece of music. Truthfully, I try to disassociate as much as possible. I tend to find that it’s the moments that I break out and think something isn’t going to work, but I’m going to follow it for my own purposes — those are the pieces that work.”
McMahon has a deep connection to his fan base, a loyal bunch that sings along to every song and revels in McMahon’s exuberant stage performance. When inspired, McMahon sometimes jumps on top of the grand piano, singing his heart out for the crowd which returns the love with voices raised and arms outstretched — in case he decides to stage dive and let them carry him away. It is at moments like these when one feels that this Glass Passenger may very well be shatterproof.
Early influences: As soon as I got into the piano, my parents went out and got Elton John’s Greatest Hits. My older siblings turned me on to Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead, and Phish, especially early albums like Junta.
“If U C Jordan,” Something Corporate’s first single: No question, it seems juvenile in retrospect. I was 17 when I wrote that song. I was a senior in high school and there was a dude named Jordan who was going to hunt me down and kick my ass. It’s funny; we met down the line. He and I both incidentally did work for the same charity. I made clear in a lot of interviews that I never expected that song to hit. We put it on an EP because we thought it would just come out and go away. And then KROQ played it. It was an accident.