What began with a high school party in which he invited two-hundred peers to his house to watch him perform on a staircase with his friends, has now snowballed into a lifelong music career, spanning multiple bands and songs that have been the soundtrack to people’s youth including his own. Andrew McMahon is, of course, the person I’m speaking of here.
From his days in Something Corporate to his dalliance as the leader and forerunner of Jack’s Mannequin, it’s been a long road for McMahon that has finally lead him here: the release of his second solo album ‘Zombies on Broadway’. Showcasing some of his best work to date, the record is a sign of both maturity and nostalgia as it blends his piano-rock styles of old with a love affair for pop aesthetic and production.
I recently had the absolute pleasure of speaking with the well-spoken and humble McMahon about the upcoming record and the possibility of a foray into other musical avenues…
Hey Andrew, how are you?
I’m well, Matty, how are you?
Yeah not too bad. What time is it where you are?
It is 3:30 in the afternoon in Southern California. What time is where you are?
It is 10:30 in the morning. So pretty early for a rockstar like myself.
[Laughs] Well I got my sleep last night so I’m feeling good! I hope you’re enjoying your day so far.
[Laughs] Yeah, I’ll try. What else are you up to today besides telling interviewers that yes, you are excited to release this new album?
Yeah, you’re spot on with that one! It’s just a little peace and quiet here. A bit of gym and hanging out with my daughter, really.
Oh, awesome. A bit of down time before the chaos of touring.
That’s exactly it!
So one of the first things I noticed about ‘Zombies on Broadway’ was the album cover. It’s the first record where your face is front and centre of the art. That seems like a very important and conscious choice.
Yeah, I don’t know if the intention was that I “needed” my face on the cover but we shot tonnes of material throughout the day for the album cover shoot. But the concept was something the photographer came back with that we hadn’t intended to have; it was something he stumbled upon. And I think for me as well there this lingering notion that there’s a reconciliation with two sides of myself and the extremes that can present themselves on a daily basis for me. It seemed to say it all. There’s half of me “in space” and half of me in New York City as the shot would suggest. We just fell in love with that imagery.
It seems almost vulnerable in some ways, to just have your face plastered on the front of this album that represents so much of yourself.
I think there was a sense that for me, to really do this and do my best work, I needed to make myself vulnerable and really put myself out there. It was a somewhat intentional move when we decided on that image. It was an “Okay, that’s me,” to the extent that there was a version of the cover that was extensively airbrushed and I remember saying “No! I wanna see the lines in my face!” and there was a debate about me wanting to have the lines in my face and that honesty added back into the cover to accurately represent it.
There’s also a bit of contrast in the title. You’ve got “Andrew McMahon presents ‘Zombies on Broadway’”. So this “human in a non-lived in world” and then a “non-human in a lived in world”.
I don’t know how deeply I went into analysing it all, I think you’ve done a better job than I did! [Laughs] But there is an intentional conversation about duality and how I think that there are two sides to a lot of us and I think that I got to a place where I was digging into those things with this album and it got to a place with those questions about looking for peace in the moment in my hometown and then going into the fray of New York City with friends. So certainly there are those two sides that are supposed to reflect in the title of the record and the visual attached it.
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to spin the record before this interview and to me, it feels like an equal mix of a breakup record and love letter to yourself and your time and roots in New York. It’s almost a concept album in some ways.
Oh yeah, in a lot of ways by the nature of how I write, my work is a love letter. If there is some truth to be found and something conceptual in it, there’s both a confrontation and embrace of that lifestyle and a sense of celebration and joy in the face of what could be trickier times. I find the conceptual part of it is that line of tension and celebration and pushing a little too far and hard and having to come back and find yourself in the middle somewhere. But there are certainly parts where I’m confronting my own demons and some of my personal history in the location I recorded this album. I think it certainly came with having to let go of some things and wrap myself around others. But you know, I’m now better for it all.
I think the sonic element of the record is separated from the actual storytelling of it all. I was digging deeper into the landscapes of these songs and I started building and growing that palette of sounds and doing different things. There’s a lot more guitar on this record whereas there was none on the last one and I think there are a [plethora] of sounds that I was able to access due to being blessed to work with so many different and talented people on this album that all brought different things. When I was writing and recording this record I was able to collaborate with so many people who helped build that side of the story up.
Who would you say was one of the best work with on this record, if you can even pick a favourite?
[Laughs] I think I’m too political to even answer that question. I could just say “Oh, I love everybody” which is true! There wasn’t anybody I worked with that wasn’t awesome and so much fun. But certainly Gregg Wattenberg and Derrick Furman and their team who produced most of the record. They were actually the reason I ended up in New York. They facilitated something special from one of these writer-producer relationships that can happen. Especially if you get into the L.A songwriter circuit, it can get very impersonal where you’re trying to write hit songs and move quickly. I think the thing that I found with Gregg and Derrick and these camp of guys who inhabited this studio on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan was that we just had a lot of fun. If we took a week to write a song, then we took a week to write a song! There was no pressure that we had to make something great, it was just simply about making something great. One of the first songs I did with those guys was ‘Fire Escape’ and then I just kind of picked up everything I had and moved all my operations to the city! There was just something so magical that happened in that studio that we had to wrap it around the entire record. I brought in songs I had written elsewhere and finished them there and I think for that reason, I hold those guys pretty close as collaborators and friends that I made in the process of this album.
That’s awesome Andrew! We’re almost out of time but there’s one thing I wanted to ask and it sort of has to do with you writing for the TV show Smash (check out the banger he wrote here). You’ve mentioned before you’d be keen to work on a musical. And now that this new album is called ‘Zombies on Broadway’…
[Laughs] I see where this is going…
…Do you think we’re getting closer to seeing your own ‘Hamilton’ on stage sometime in the next few years?
[Laughs] Well first off, the level and craftsmanship in ‘Hamilton’ is second to none so to even try to put up something in completion with that would be shocking! But there’s nothing in the works at the moment but I think having done two albums deep on this [in The Wilderness] project, there is a sense in me that I will start to expand my palette the way I did with ‘Smash’ and look for additional projects to put in-between my own albums. I find them really satisfying and there’s something awesome about getting out of your own head and into characters and storytellers and help bring their ideas to life. I do see something like that in the future. I don’t know if it will be Broadway or a musical but I do see it happening sooner later.
Well, I reckon if you could get in a room with either Lin-Manuel Miranda or Tim Minchin, you could create something magical. Even if it was just one song.
Well, I would be honoured to do that! I loved the work [Miranda] did on ‘Moana’. My daughter was also a big fan of that so yeah, I would love that.
Awesome. Well thanks so much for your time today, Andrew. It was a lovely chat and I wish you all the best with this album release?
Thanks so much, and yeah it was. Have a great day, Matty.
‘Zombies on Broadway’ hits stores February 10th. Be sure to suss out the tracks that have already been dropped and if you like what you hear, pre-order the record here and join me in waiting for a tour announcement hopefully this year!