Q&A: Jack’s Mannequin

Life can be as dismal as it is beautiful and sometimes you have to sift through the obstacles to find something meaningful to hang on to. Since the first JACK’S MANNEQUIN album was released almost seven years ago, Andrew McMahon has been an inspiration of sorts to listeners as well as fellow musicians through his songs and personal life. While on tour in support of his latest release People And Things, the 29-year-old songwriter opened up about where his current tour is taking him, his past fight with leukemia and how it was documented and why his new recordings are a reflection on how the past few years have shaped him and those around him.

So after Toronto you’ll be going down the eastern seaboard a little bit until the middle of February, when it looks like you’ll be heading to Australia and Japan. Have you been to both of those places before either with Something Corporate or Jack’s Mannequin?

Yeah I’ve done both places before with both bands actually – quite a bit more with the Jack’s guys, but I think we did make one or maybe two trips with Something Corporate back in the day. I try to go once a year; I find that the fans out there are really supportive and we actually surprisingly draw a pretty good crowd in both countries. I’m always eager to get out to that side of the world.
In Australia in February I see you’re part of Soundwave Festival this year with some bands like Marilyn Manson, System Of A Down, Unearth…

Lamb of God, yeah, you know, all of our normal touring partners (laughs).
Exactly! While it seems like there are a lot old friends on the bill, I also feel like there might be some new faces for you to meet on that lineup.

Yeah, it’s a really interesting festival. We’ve done it at least once before as I recall. Obviously, we’re not going to be on the same stage as the metal bands, no doubt; we’re kind of the alternative side of the festival, but interestingly enough we have some good friends in the Lamb of God camp. They came up in Richmond, Virginia, where a couple of my bandmates are from. We will have some old friends out there and hopefully the festival will receive us well and we’ll wind up on a stage with some like-minded acts.
Is there anyone you’re hoping to catch up with?

If I’m not mistaken, my old buddy Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional) might be out there for this one. There are some other old friends too but the names are kind of escaping me. The last couple of weeks have been kind of a whirlwind getting back on my feet after the holidays. But there will certainly be some old compatriots out there, and we’ll have a good chance to spend some time with for those couple weeks.

I re-watched the documentary you made about your fight with leukemia, Dear Jack, and in it, as you get worn down by the treatments, at one point you seem confused at possibly having to set up a will. At that point, did you ever wonder what might happen to the footage you’d recorded if you didn’t make it?

The funny thing about that footage is I never really imagined it was going to be seen. There was this process that I had been in for a number of months before I had even found out I was ill where I was more or less using the camera as a way to clear the slate at the end of the day. I had been separated from my original band and my girlfriend of a number of years, and I was just on this new journey creating the music for Jack’s Mannequin. It was an exciting journey, but I didn’t feel like I had many personal outlets to be conversational about it. So, I had been using this video camera as a video journal of sorts. The assumption was that maybe in a couple of years I would unearth some of these tapes and get a picture of what life was like back then.

When I got sick, I just stuck with the process because it had become such a part of my day in the months leading up to when I found out I wasn’t well. Then I had these friends, who I knew well and also happened to be documentary filmmakers, come and visit me in the hospital and they noticed I was filming a lot of what was going on. They approached me and said, “Hey, we saw you with your camera, would you be comfortable with us seeing the footage?” I don’t know if I really expected anybody to have seen it.
There’s this saying that adversity doesn’t build character, but it reveals it. I think that in the movie, when you commit to having that “100 day show” 100 days after your stem cell injection, you really displayed that. Were you surprised by how motivated and passionate you were to keep getting better?

I think it might have revealed more my predisposition towards lunacy, possibly. But, yeah I think that show became, to some extent, a catalyst towards my recovery. I would be lying if I didn’t say that some of that stuff was probably a little too soon. I think I used the opportunity to work and the opportunity to spread the word about this first Jack’s Mannequin record, which for me, in so many ways, was the thing I was most proud of creating in my whole life. I was so hell bent on people hearing it that I sort of committed to this idea that while I was getting better, I would also expose people to this music. It does sort of shock me as I look back that I was so willing to abandon a peaceful recovery in the name of working hard at the same time to expose people to the music.
One of the really special parts of that movie I think comes during an interview with your dad. How did it feel when you saw the footage of your father calling you one of his heroes?

That’s definitely a heavy part of the movie, even for me. Seeing that segment of the interview for the first time was… it was pretty heavy. Any time you see your own father get choked up, I think most people who’ve had that experience would say it’s a pretty affecting thing to see. It certainly was for me in that moment.
Can you think of someone’s reaction to the film that has really touched you or stayed with you?

I think what worried me the most about it was how people who were in the midst of their own struggle might react to it. That was my biggest fear. For me, just because it was my situation, watching it even in the midst of my recovery, was an incredibly difficult thing to see. That’s why it did take a few years following the journey itself to even get it out, because just editing the movie and seeing the edits as they came across was very affecting. So, I think what’s been most powerful for me is to see that people who are actually in the midst of a struggle of their own have gravitated towards the film and have found hope in it and have found some level of encouragement knowing that despite the difficulties associated with treatment, there is hope for a positive outcome and one that can have you on your feet in no time. I think that for me has been the most powerful thing.
When’s the last time you spoke to Tommy Lee?

Tommy and I exchange text messages at least once every month or two. I think the last one I got was when he sent me video footage from this gig Motley Crue did in Vegas, where he had built this roller coaster drum set that spun around like one of those old super loops at a carnival. Like that ride that spins you around and takes you upside down? He built a drum kit that basically did the same thing. But we did a festival last May called The Bamboozle on the east coast where he and the Motley guys were also playing and he was running to try to get on stage so we could play a song together but they got caught in a press conference. We still keep in touch, not as much as we used to, but we certainly still talk whenever we get the chance.

At the end of the movie, it says the organization you started to benefit blood cancer research, the Dear Jack Foundation, had raised about $250,000. That was in 2009. How much have you guys raised now?

For the Leukemia And Lymphoma Society, as of this year, I think we’re up in the neighborhood of $450,000 for the past five or six years. Individually as an organization we tend to raise somewhere between $30,000-$75,000 a year. We’re still a fairly small organization but our new status as an official non-profit organization just came through. Our hope is that, as we get a little further out there in front of this conversation about young adult cancer and the poor outcomes that we’re tending to find with it specifically, that we’re going to start attracting some larger donors and doing some more events to raise even more money, and really try to get the conversation about how we can change these outcomes that haven’t seen much improvement in 30 years.
People And Things is your second album since beating leukemia. How has having those issues in your rear-view mirror affected the way you write new material?

I think even with this record there was a bit of reflection. Not so much on that experience, but on the things that didn’t get discussed at that time because I was pretty focused on my recovery. I think this record became very much one about relationships and reconciling some relationships that had, to some extent, fallen to the wayside while I had to focus on my recovery. So, to me, I look at this record as very much the story of my first few years married, which all kind of occurred in the halo effect of my recovery. Certainly, there were also some friendships and relationships with family members and things like that I really wanted to shed some light on, because, to some extent, I had avoided them.
Could you have written “Hey, Hey, Hey” if not for that experience?

No, absolutely not. “Hey, Hey, Hey” was actually written for The Glass Passenger and I couldn’t finish it, largely because, in a way, it’s a song about celebrating the time leading up to that experience and what happened immediately afterwards. Those first two verses kind of talk about the last two weeks of tour that I was on with Jack’s Mannequin before I found out I was sick. I ended up finishing the song as I was touring The Glass Passenger and it was at those same venues where I had been when I started noticing I wasn’t well. It took not only going through that, but also returning and getting back on my feet to really finish that song. That’s why it ended up on this album.
There are a lot of lines throughout the new album about snow and cold – particularly on “Amy, I” – were you doing a lot of your writing in the winter?

Yeah, “Amy, I” I wrote in Nashville with one of my good buddies Matt Thiessen. I had flown out to Nashville because we had long since talked about doing some writing together and I decided to see if this idea would bear fruit. It was a very literal start for that song. We had gone out drinking the night before and I woke up the next morning in his guest room. I got out onto the floor in my bare feet and was cruising on the creaky floorboards and as I was looking out the window, there was just a whole fresh layer of snow. I sat down at his piano just as he was waking up and wrote those first couple of lines. Truthfully, the writing of this record spanned probably a year-and-a-half’s worth of seasons, but certainly a good portion of it was penned in the winter.
Dating back to when you first started playing rock shows as a piano player, did it ever make you nervous about the kind of reaction you’d get from a crowd on the road because you had a piano front-and-center on stage?

Oh yeah, especially in the early days with Something Corporate. We would haul my upright piano into gigs and venues and be supporting these punk rock bands. We would definitely have a combination of reactions. Sometimes it was middle fingers and some pretty nasty comments flying from the audience because we were those guys with the piano playing what was certainly not punk rock music. But I have tended to find that, especially in those early years, it was our commitment to bringing that piano out there that got us a lot of respect and got a lot of people thinking differently about the ability for rock music to be played in a different way — especially as it related to us, who were, at that time, 17 and 18-years-old. But yeah, we definitely got some shit along the way.

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