Interview Motion City Soundtrack: ‘We Didn’t Have Anybody To Answer To’

Heather McDaid discusses with Motion City Soundtrack why they’re a band who get the job done.

When a band parts ways with their record label, it can often lead to a tumultuous and stress-filled period for those involved. However, that is not how Motion City Soundtrack operate. Following their departure from Columbia Records in 2010, the band got straight to work and recorded their fifth record ‘Go’ on their own time and their own terms. After treading all this new ground creatively together, they found themselves back with Epitaph records, ready to co-release their album on their very own label. Basically, they’re a band who get the job done.

“This one was really strange,” notes Justin Pierre, “because we actually had parted ways with Columbia – our previous record label – in 2010, I think. ‘My Dinosaur Life’ came out in 2010 and literally by the end of that year, we were off the label. So, we just started writing and we didn’t have a plan other than we just wanted to write music and we thought ‘You know what? Let’s just record it ourselves and pay for it ourselves and we’ll figure out what to do next after that’. We all got together and I think it was February or March of last year and we started writing. I think by the time we got to the end of April, we had the record finished.

“So, in the first four months of that year – we just wrote it. It was the first time that we had done something like that; it was the first record where we didn’t have anybody checking in on us and seeing how things were going, we didn’t have anybody to answer to. We just took our time and made stuff up along the way. It was very refreshing and also very scary knowing that you’re both financially and ethically responsible for everything and there’s no one else to help you out. Everything turned out really awesome.”

It was confirmed that following this recording process, the band returned to their old label – Epitaph Records. “A few labels were interested in possibly putting it out,” he adds. “We met with a few labels and one of them was Epitaph and then we started talking about the possibility of working with them and it just made a whole lot of sense. Going completely from doing it all on our own by ourselves to suddenly ‘Now, we’re going to sign with Epitaph’ is how that happened. We started with Epitaph and it’s only fitting to be back there again.”

“We lucked out because even though we’ve been on labels before, we’ve had a lot of freedom but this time it was more that we didn’t have anyone to answer to but ourselves,” explains Justin, discussing the freedoms they had without the constraints of a label. “I mean, it is another stage and another level in the whole freedom hierarchy and I think it really did affect us. I can’t really put it into words, but it was a lot of fun and we tried not to focus on the weight of realising that we are the only ones responsible for this, nobody else is going to help us out.

“I think that did allow for us to just do whatever we wanted; we’d sort of been going that way more and more in the last few years and experimenting. I mean, we’re not doing any crazy techno or country records but we’re experimenting within a certain realm we’re all comfortable with. Yeah, the freedom is nice; I like that. I think it also proves to our label or whoever involved that we can pretty much do anything on our own.

“I do believe that most artists are better left alone to let them do their thing and then come check it out at the end. However, I know that’s precarious especially when you have money and such invested in someone it’s hard not to check in and just make sure everything’s going alright. I am very excited about the record and the fact that we did it all on our own. I think it proves to us as well that we can handle pretty much anything.”

“The main thing when we were writing was that we didn’t want to say no to any idea,” Justin explains, touching on their musical intentions. “We collected upwards of 50 ideas, which is very different for us. Usually, per album, up until this point we’d focus on twelve songs and really binding them and making sure they’re perfect. Then, when we go into the studio to work with people, we’ll try to get as much done as quickly as possible and that’s it. But, for this album we did it with our friend Ed Ackerson – he was the producer on this record. With a few smaller projects, we had a lot of fun. We’d show up with vague ideas of what we wanted and we would sort of feel it out and see what we were doing along the way. Luckily, he has this amazing studio that’s totally affordable and – doing the record this way - we got to spend way more time in the studio than ever before.

“We took that approach and we had fifty songs to choose from and we’d take one on one day to work with and if it was going somewhere we’d continue with it and if it wasn’t we’d shelve it and go onto the next one. Sometimes we’d come back to something and if a song was worth it I think we all would typically know that we wanted to work on it. We would work on those until they were done and then we collected the songs. We ended up finishing about 17 songs and then we had to pick from there for the record, which ended up being 11.

The only part that was weird about that was trying to keep up with everyone’s whims of what we’re going to work on and then I was trying to write lyrics for 50 songs. Some of them started sounding similar and a lot of the ideas cross-collateralised – is that the word? I was always in the other room writing – I’d quickly run in and do my part then run back out and work on lyrics, so I feel like it was crazy. I feel that I was constantly working on this record and there wasn’t a lot of down time, but it was a lot of fun!”

With fifty songs to put lyrics to across this process, what ideas did he find himself touching on? “Well, recently I’ve been really obsessed with this simple theme of love and death. I feel like in the past we’ve always sort of written songs about me, but with a very idiosyncratic and weird change. Sometimes it’s a bit more dark and you might think, looking at it on the surface, that this doesn’t seem as dark but if you look into it a little more you might realise it is. I feel like Josh and Matt brought this out – they were wondering if I could write things that were more universal – but I don’t think they actually said that to me in our conversation.

“There are certain songs like the one called ‘Timelines’ where I wrote eight different versions of lyrics and we actually recorded the seventh one and had it as our finished product. Then a month later I went in and re-wrote and re-recorded lyrics and now those are the ones that are actually on the record now. It’s all just about trying to find the right thing to say. I think up until this record, I would just write all the lyrics but a few times on people would have opinions and say ‘Can you make this more relatable to others?’ I mean, in ‘Timelines’ they were just so morose to hear that it made my skin crawl when I listened to it, but I liked that. I like reacting to something I hear but the rest of the songs were so positive and uplifting that I tried to make it a little more PG13, which I think I did.

“I guess the one thing is that I was trying to be more universal and more relatable towards people; not so specific yet I feel that it is still about me. It’s a very strange thing, but I feel that I’ve succeeded on a least a couple of songs; in particular ‘Happy Anniversary’, ‘Everyone Will Die’, ‘Timelines’, ‘Floating Down The River’ maybe. Those are the songs.”

“I feel that ‘Go’ is a little bit of everyone put together,” continues Justin. “I do know that it has a lot more acoustic guitars on it but I did not even notice until a few weeks ago; I listened to the record because I was trying to learn some of the new songs and I realised there was a lot of acoustic guitar in it. That’s not necessarily new, that’s just different. It’s interesting; at one point we almost had one song per previous record on this record. One song didn’t make it, but a song that we tried to write for ‘Commit This To Memory’ is now on this record. We have a song that we tried to write for ‘My Dinosaur Life’ that’s on this record, the one that we tried to write for ‘Even If It Kills Me’ did not make this record but I think it’s a fair mixture of old and new. I think there’s a fair mixture of everything that we’ve done before but all on one record.”

But going back to Epitaph wasn’t on the cards from the off, nor any other label, for that matter. “It was talked about when recording the record ourselves – we had also talked about putting out the record ourselves,” he admits. “To do that, we had to do some certain things. The simplest thing was to come up with the label and the name of that label. Basically, in name only, we had come up with that. Opportunity then arose for us to do a split EP with a band called Trampled By Turtles and we used that name and the logo we had created for it, but we really didn’t have a label, it was very much just a name.

“I mean, it’s just the five of us – it’s not as if we’re trying to take over the world or anything – and we really want to put that label on everything we do. If something comes our way that it makes sense for us to do then we will, but right now we’re focussing on things that we are physically a part of as far as putting music out with the Boombox Generation label.”

As for the future of their label, he says, “We don’t really have anything planned. We put out the one 7” and there’s another 7” set that we’re curating with Drexel University, they have a record label called Mad Dragon Records, based in Philadelphia. They’re like a school where the students are involved in the engineering and recording of the records, they filmed the whole thing, they’re A&R-ing, they’re doing all the radio stuff and everything that a label does from beginning to end with these seven inches. They are basically five or six bands that we’ve picked with the students to record a few songs, three each – two for the 7” and one for a B-side download. That was a lot of fun; that was something we did at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. So, that was the other main thing that we had our name on. I have no idea what this year holds as far as the record label goes, but the main thing we’re doing now is co-releasing our new record ‘Go’ on Epitaph and Boombox Records.”

While the making of an album and creation of a record label were big enough undertakings, Motion City Soundtrack also delighted fans in a live capacity by playing their entire back catalogue in the space of two nights in London. “It was a lot of fun and it was a lot of work,” he admits. “I don’t have the best memory on the planet and so I really had to focus. For me, I mean I liked doing it because it’s fun to do but at the same time I don’t like doing it because it’s so much work and I really have to take care of my voice so that I don’t lose it doing pretty much four shows in two days. It was a lot of stress on that level, but the actual performing of it and being in front of people and being able to do it was a lot of fun. So, it’s like this weird half and half picture of fun and pain.

“It was really good to do, especially before the record comes out, because we got to re-acclimate ourselves to the lesser played songs. Unfortunately, I think that can happen in the case of putting out several albums – some songs just end up getting shoved off to the side and so it was fun to get to play those songs that you don’t typically play as much anymore.”

Luckily, for those looking to see the band in a live setting shouldn’t have long to wait. As Justin explains, the rest of this year is dedicated to extensive touring. “I know that we’re going to be back in the States in June and then I think we’ll be heading over to Japan in July. We’re trying to do stuff over there and then hopefully come back to the UK and Europe again at least one more time, if not two, by the end of the year. Then I think we’re doing another tour in the US. It’s basically all touring – that’s what we’ve got going on this year – a lot of touring.

“I think we’re actually shooting a music video next week and I have a lot to prepare for that. I can’t tell you what it is because it’s top secret but it’ll take a lot of work; if we pull it off it’s going to be amazing and if we don’t pull it off we’re going to look stupid. I best get cracking on that!”

Motion City Soundtrack’s new album ‘Go’ will be released on 11th June via Epitaph Records and The Boombox Generation.

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