Singer Andrew McMahon is seemingly a happily married man with a beloved little girl about to start kindergarten. So why, then, is the In the Wilderness frontman/pianist sharing his tour bus bunk with a soulful-eyed blond beauty named Doris? Typical rock & roll shenanigans?
Hardly. Doris is his family's Wheaten Terrier. While his wife and daughter share a back bedroom area on the bus, McMahon cuddles with his pooch in a claustrophobic bunk. It's hardly a portrait of music biz decadence, but his life has not always been this pacific. Now, though, on tour supporting 2018's stunning Upside Down Flowers, things are pretty OK. He's with his band in Salt Lake City, a couple hours until the night's gig. They've been playing energetic two-hour shows, and McMahon is supposed to be resting his voice. Oops.
He'll be playing a few tunes by Something Corporate (1998–2006, 2010) and Jack's Mannequin (2004–2012). But the emphasis is on In the Wilderness, the band and moniker he's used for the last five years and three records.
"I've got fans that have been with me for so long. So I've never been the guy who's like, 'No, I'm not gonna play the old shit,'?" he explains. "But I also am really making a point to not just make it a pure nostalgia fest and to really lean on the new material and keep people coming for the new stuff."
Born in 1982 in Concord, Massachusetts, McMahon moved to Orange County in middle school, and he's lived in the O.C. pretty much since then. But when he began making music seriously, McMahon thought he needed to come to Hollywood to "make it."
"One of our first L.A. shows, we played the Roxy and that was the classic, pay-to-play configuration. I love the Roxy, but I joked that it was like the worst night of my life because I had been dating my sister's college roommate, and she broke up with me during the show."
Heartbreak makes for great songs, and thanks to his soulful indie-pop songs, McMahon did get that record deal, with Maverick, and made great records. But too soon, news worse than a breakup hit: Five months into 2005 and three months before the release of Jack's Mannequin's debut album, Everything in Transit, McMahon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He received a stem cell transplant from his sister, and eventually went into remission and recovery. Of course, the emotional tolls remain, though the cancer is now more than a decade in the rear view.
The songs on Upside Down Flowers are by turns celebratory, poignant, plus just plain cool stories ("Ohio," "Teenage Rockstars"). But they're often informed by a sense of California as much as they are McMahon's own life. Before he began the songs that coalesced into Upside Down Flowers, he'd been dealing with a tough time, financially and personally. But instead of spiraling downward, he said, "I came home, and decided, 'All right, here's the practice. I'm gonna wake up every morning, do coffee, do breakfast, get my daughter Cecilia ready to get out the door, and then I'll sit down at the piano, and I'll work. I'll work until lunch, eat lunch, then I'll work until the time to pick up my daughter from school, do dinner, and then come back and finish whatever I had.'?"
It soon became a habit: "I stopped being in this really precious space of like, beating myself up about 'Is this chorus good enough?' or 'Is this moment good enough?' Then if I hit a wall, I'd just start writing something new."
The end result is in many ways a love letter to California and its quirks, beauty and light, from the album cover — a stylized retro photo that's lovely but with a few odd characters in it — to the songs, which hold those same lovely and varied qualities. Instead of always "digging into feelings," the lyrical path became more "Let's talk about these strangers that I see on the street every day, or if the character should all of a sudden find itself being invented in some kind of stream of consciousness, like, where are they? To me, that was some version of real and surreal Southern California that has really just become my place."
Working with producer Butch Walker on Upside Down Flowers proved a flawless pairing, both sonically and personally. Yet it wasn't the first time the two had crossed paths. "We met, I think, at really a pivotal and strange time in both of our lives," McMahon recalls."We were both working on Tommy Lee's [Mötley Crüe] album in like 2005. Butch was writing and producing for Tommy, and I was writing and producing for Tommy, and we were both in this hysterical orbit of the fallout of hair metal, and our mutual adoration of Tommy."
Working together for the emotional, piano-based songs that populate Upside Down Flowers was a far cry from Lee's Methods of Mayhem. The third In the Wilderness release has received reviews that range from "arguably the best solo album McMahon has released to date" to "...follows up 2017's Zombies on Broadway by stripping off a decade or three from that record's electronic sounds to create an intimacy that varies between translucent and supercharged."
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It's a sound that could come out of Laurel Canyon, as many discrete and wonderful songs and people have and continue to do. "I'm trying to think of what would be like a, you know, like a quintessential L.A. record," McMahon muses. "For me, Wildflowers by [Tom] Petty, but I don't know if you consider that an 'L.A. record,' but part of me thinks of that as Los Angeles music for sure. Crosby Stills Nash & Young — and having read that Laurel Canyon biography — 'Our House' is one of my favorite songs of all time." (And that 1970 gem is not far from McMahon's own oeuvre.)
And, like Petty, who name-checked his heroes in song, McMahon pens a fond goodbye to our dear departed musical muses on "Goodnight Rock & Roll," singing, "Goodnight rock and roll/If you find life on Mars, you've got to let us know/I hope you're running down a dream there, wildflower ... Yeah, I never got to know you but your songs got me through the day/There go my heroes pressing play in the great beyond."
It's nearly time for McMahon to head to the Depot club — on West South Temple street, half a mile from Salt Lake City's biggest attraction, Temple Square. He's about 700 miles and six tour dates from Hollywood, where Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness will land at the Orpheum for a hometown show. Only this time, they won't have to pay to play — they'll be the ones getting paid. And they've earned it.
Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness play at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 22, at the Orpheum.