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Message In A Soundtrack

(Interview With Justin Pierre & Joshua Cain Taken From Black Velvet 39 - Feb 2004)

By Shari Black Velvet

MOTION CITY SOUNDTRACK's first taste of the UK's rock contingency occurred when they were hooked up to support fellow Epitaph recording artists Sugarcult in the country in June 2003. Their 'I Am The Movie' album release coincided with the tour and the band's set impressed much of the Sugarcult fanbase, so much so that when it was announced that they'd be back five months later as support to The All-American Rejects, the new-found MCS fans were delighted and in high anticipation. Black Velvet had also enjoyed the band so much at Sugarcult's London Mean Fiddler show that we'd decided that upon their next visit we'd go get a Motion City Soundtrack interview. So despite the Birmingham show being the day we returned from a trip to America and suffering heavily from jetlag and in much need of sleep, we jumped on a train and headed to the Irish Centre to meet said band.





The band is comprised of Justin Pierre (vocals/guitar), Joshua Cain (guitar/vocals), Matt Taylor (bass/vocals), Jesse Johnson (keyboards) and Tony Thaxton (drums/vocals). As is the case with most bands though, that wasn't the original line-up. Justin and Josh formed the foundation in the early nineties.

"I wanted to have fun and play music again 'cause I hadn't been playing music in a couple of years," reminisces the surprisingly soft-spoken frontman, Justin. "I played in a high school band and then I stopped and didn't really know what I wanted to do. I started going to film school and he called me up out of the blue."
He points to Josh, his partner-in-crime, who continues the story.
"At that moment I introduced him to a lot of bands that he didn't really know about like The Promise Ring and The Get Up Kids. There were a bunch of bands that I was like 'this is awesome music that exists' and spawned off a lot of bands that we had liked a lot at high school. I was like 'we should do this as something that we're missing out on because this is what we would have done if maybe we'd continued…' 'cause I had maybe a couple of years break and I started a band with some people that were asking for a bass player. It was that kind of music, faux emo or whatever you want to call it, and I was like 'this is an awesome genre', Jimmy Eat World and all those bands at that moment, 'cause I'd kinda missed out on a couple of years of music. I'd seen The Get Up Kids play in basements and I was like 'this would be awesome to be a part of this scene that I'd never been a part of'."
After a while the line-up changed, band members came and went. Tony Thaxton and Matt Taylor were both from Richmond, Virginia. They left the state to join forces with Justin and Josh in Minneapolis while Jesse Johnson came in on keyboards.
Talking about Jesse and the decision to have a keyboardist, Josh says, "It was something we'd always kind of dabbled with. At one point we'd taken on a keyboard player. He was a full-time keyboard player and did a few shows with us but it didn't really work out. We had problems with his personality and working with the band and understanding where our direction was going to be. That person just kinda clashed with it. So we let that person go and when we recorded the record our drummer played some keyboard parts that we'd started with before and then Justin learned how to play keyboards and he'd play them live."
"And then we started writing songs that had a little bit of keyboard here and there whenever we felt like we wanted."
"It was something we always kinda wanted but we never had," says Josh.
"We liked bands like The Rentals and That Dog, Pinkerton and Weezer," Justin informs.
"I worked with a guy that I knew his band was kinda defuncting and it was Jesse," adds Josh. "I was like 'hey, do you want to play keyboards in a band?' and he was like 'I don't know how' and I was like 'we can teach ya'."
"He was a big music freak and I don't think he'd ever not been in a band for any amount of time," explains Justin. "Since he was about ten or something, he'd always played music. So we knew his heart was in the right place."

The band are self-confessed Ben Folds Five fans although they also list Pixies and Superchunk among their fave bands. As far as their own performing goes, Josh's first ever concert was in a basement at a party. This was well before Motion City Soundtrack came into play.
"Halfway through our show the singer, his name was Felix… We played 'Fight For Your Right To Party' by the Beastie Boys and he didn't know all the lyrics right and someone from the audience who was also a friend of ours came up and sang it right and then from that point on was our singer. Which kinda sat weird with that other singer but that's what happened."
Justin tells us about his first ever show. "The first show I played… I played guitar and I really didn't know what I was doing. I just liked playing guitar. And then there was this one guy who I met who was really weird and he skateboarded a lot and he didn't know how to play drums but he said 'I like you and I think you're cool and I hate jocks so let's start a band that makes fun of jocks". So we did and he learned how to play drums. He had four different sets that he put together and made into one. And we wrote really bad music. And there are people in this place called Cottage Grove, which is 45 minutes away from where I live in Minnesota. They have this festival and all these crappy bands play there and that was our first show. That was in '92."

The band's first concert with the current line-up was as support to The Starting Line.
Josh remembers it as being about four days after Matt had joined the band. "He flew out and learnt the songs and that was the night we played for our lawyer... He'd flown out to see us."
How does the band compare now to then?
"I think we're a little better," laughs Justin.
"We've become road warriors, whatever that means," replies Josh. "We've been on the road for 270 shows this year so it's like anytime we thought we played a lot of shows before has just been out the window. We've played a lot of shows now."
"And I still forget the words!" injects Justin.
They both agree that they don't make so many mistakes now and the mistakes they do make are much smaller!
Justin admits to getting fearful before he goes onstage. "I tend to have to do a lot of warming up and going over the words in my head. I get quite a bit nervous. But then usually when I'm on stage everything seems alright and I just jump around like an idiot and somehow it all works out."
Josh says, "I just get anxious I think and then all of a sudden it's like 'oh yeah, we're playing'. And then we're done. It goes by really fast."

The guys are both happy with the success they've achieved so far, especially having the chance to come to England twice in one year.
Josh says, "It's awesome. It's a nice, slow growth as a band. If you think of it business-wise, it's kind of a scary slow growth, but at the same time it's an amazing thing because our fans are… it's still growing and we're getting really good people that like our band and like being a part of the community of our band. It doesn't feel fake. Yeah, being in the UK twice in one year, as a normal person in a band, it's an amazing time now."
Justin reveals, "I think of all the time I spent in my bedroom playing my guitar and listening to the bands that I like and then comparing that to what I do now, it seems kinda surreal. So I'm enjoying it quite a bit."

The band have quite a loyal fanbase in America. There are members of their internet yahoogroup that tour from show to show. What do the guys think of that and do they think you're worth doing that for?
"It weirds me out!" answers Justin.
"I don't know if we're worth doing that for," ponders Josh. "They're nice kids..."
Justin says that he feels bad that they spend so much money especially as the band haven't had time to write some new songs.
"It's an amazing thing," says Josh. "I can't imagine it 'cause I never really did it. It's something maybe I wish I'd done with some bands."
"Maybe for a band like The Pixies or Superchunk, those bands," contemplates a modest Justin. "Those bands seem amazing and awesome and worth doing that for but not me! I wouldn't do it for me!"
"Hahaha, yeah. But it's very nice of them and we've very thankful that they do it," says Josh.
They talk about Jenny, Denise and Mia from Chicago who went so far as to produce a book for them. Apparently this goes down as the 'craziest thing' one (or more) of their fans has done for them.
"They made a book named after one of our new songs. There's a line that goes 'commit this a memory' and they made a book and talked to everyone that they know that we know like our girlfriends, our parents; they got everyone to write little things about us and took all these photos and news clippings and made this big scrap book of stuff with people talking about us. It's a very nice, cute thing. But it's a very big book, it must have taken a long time to get it together."

'I Am The Movie' is the band's debut album on Epitaph Records. It's an album well worth investing in featuring 14 excellent poppy rock songs. The album was actually recorded twice though.

Josh recounts, "We recorded part of it and it failed miserably and I was like 'ok, we need to record our album again and we need to go to a real producer and it's going to cost us lots of money. You wanna do that?' and he was like 'I don't know'. I was like 'let's get Tony (our drummer, who's from Virginia) and we'll get all this worked out and then we'll go to Lawrence, KS and record with Ed Rose. Ed thinks we can do it for about $4000.' We got the money together and we went and did that but we ended up taking a lot longer than we wanted to. We ended up spending $6000 on it. We recorded for ten days, trying to get everything done as fast as we could. We had done all that with our own money. Then for a year we had that at shows as a little floppy disc that we sold, that we released on our own, and then Epitaph a year later picked us up and bought that record from us and then we went back into the studio. And we had recorded three other songs in that year with Ed for other reasons and we put it all together and mixed it and made it all good with a little more money from Epitaph."
Justin says it was "Kinda what we originally wanted to do but we ran out of time and money. So we just fixed it up the way we originally wanted it to come out."
Black Velvet's favourite track on the album is 'The Future Freaks Me Out', which also happens to be the band's second single ('My Favorite Accident' was the first).
"'The Future Freaks Me Out' we had written a week before we went into the studio. So he hadn't really finished the lyrics and he was really fighting to get them done, and he went in to record and it was the last thing we were working on. And he just couldn't do it." Josh says, talking about Justin. "He was fumbling, it was bad, 'cause he'd just written them down so he was singing them for the first time in the studio. So we stopped there and came back and he did them when we came back a few week later."
"And still the night before we went down to recorded I think I needed one word and I think it was… Jesse threw that at me, the 'Too Fast For Love' Mötley Crüe record," Justin recalls.

'I Am The Movie' can be bought online from iTunes music store. iTunes is a site where you pay to download songs or albums. You don't get the actual CD in the mail, you just pay for the MP3s. Tracks can be bought for 99c each or if you'd like to buy the whole album it's $9.99. Tracks work best on iPods which are small music players that can store thousands on tracks. You can carry the player around just like a walkman and don't have to worry about carting a bunch of CDs and tapes around. All your favourite tracks are on the iPod.
Josh says, "I remember iTunes came out and we're all mac nerds. He's becoming one. He was probably the only one who didn't have a Macintosh in his veins. Even Tony did but we switched him over. So we all had iPods and we were hanging out with Brett and we were like 'hey, what about iTunes? Are you gonna get iTunes up for all Epitaph bands' and he was like 'yeah, I actually talked to them already', 'cause he's actually a nerd also about things like that. He said he was finalising the deal and six months later it got up."
But why would people pay $9.99 for an album when they could go into a shop and buy the real thing in its case for little more?
"It's definitely for people who don't want the extra stuff," Josh says. "You get the artwork too, it's just digital. It just means you don't have any packaging. Some people do it. But it really allows people to buy the one song."
Both Josh and Justin say they prefer to have the real thing and the actual CDs. "But there are some people that do that that just want to put songs on an iPod."
Don't you think they'd just download them for free?
"They can, they can. But some people that would feel bad for that pay the $10, especially now there are a lot of scares in the US 'cause they did arrests and fined a few people so it's like 'who's gonna get caught doing it next?' I personally, the music I get is from bands on the road that we meet. Bands that we listen to are bands that we know. I don't know, you can get in trouble, maybe that's why."
One of the shops that stocked Black Velvet (Highway 61 in Wolverhampton) has sadly just closed down due to downloading affecting its sales.
Josh says, "I have mixed feeling about the downloading because it could effectively have made us successful prior to us being signed. As an unsigned band it did brilliantly for us. It brought our music out to kids. That's how we got signed. Brett listened to the 3 MP3s offline from our website. I think Epitaph may have actually put the album on Kazaa. I'm not sure. That was one of their ideas - to just give it away. As a promotion thing it works so well. Maybe we've sold records because of it, maybe we haven't sold records because of it. I think they may balance each other out."
"The only thing it really hurts is the sound scan," says Justin.
"And the huge artists," adds Josh. "People like us it doesn't really affect because we're not selling millions of records. It makes it really hard for bands to do what Offspring did. Offspring sold 11 million records worldwide. I don't think that's as possible for a rock band now. It's hard enough to reach a million for a band nowadays."
The guys weren't worried about being dropped if sales didn't reach a certain level.
"With us being on Epitaph, more doubtful. If we were on a different label then yes. If we did really bad… I don't know what really bad is. I'm not afraid of that. At our level, on our label, we're not a failure. If we had maybe signed to another bigger label where we're at we may be considered a failure. But they probably would have dumped enormous, exorbitant amounts of money into us. If you were to spend $3 million on us and we'd only sold 1000 records that would be bad. Whereas they spent a lot of money on us, for Epitaph, to do something, but it's not… that's one of the reasons we signed to Epitaph - it's because it's Epitaph. It's a little safer."

Looking to the future and the next Motion City Soundtrack release, the bandmembers say they're going to continue with the sound they have and maybe home in on it a little more rather than reinvent themselves and change into something different, although "There are new things, like being influenced by a lot of new bands like Minus The Bear and weird stuff I've never heard before that I'm sure's going to affect us somewhat," says Justin.
Talking about 'I Am The Movie', Josh says, "The three songs on there that are the three most recent songs that we'd written are a little different but they're kinda mixed in there so I think the nice thing about it is that we did mix some newer stuff with some older stuff so when our next record's maybe more like all the newer stuff that was on our last record it will make sense. It won't feel unnatural. I don't want to make any unnatural changes where it feels like we're a different band…"
"I think we want to do our own thing but at the same time our thing has always been making it up as we go along," reveals Justin.
Josh says, "I assume it'll be dark and poppy and sad and happy. We'll probably cross the line right down the edge. It'll be pretty similar to the first record but hopefully it will be the next step without making too big a step.

The band currently have a couple of forthcoming releases for fans to look forward to - a split single with Limbeck where they each do a song belonging to the other band - and then there's a Police tribute record, where the band contribute a Police cover, the song in question being 'Truth Hits Everybody'.
"Some of us would be huge Police fans, some of us like a few Police songs," admits Josh. "Tony's probably the biggest Police fan, followed by Matt."
"Isn't Jesse before Matt?" Justin asks Josh.
"I don't know. It's Jesse and Matt, I don't know which is more of a Police fan. I like a few songs, I wasn't big on the reggae stuff.
"As a band the Police were amazing. They have some amazing songs that they wrote. We just picked one that we knew we could play and make it sound like us without us trying to stretch and do something that would sound bad. We just wanted to make sure we didn't take a song and wreck it!"
Justin sounds a bit cynical about it; "No matter what you do, especially if you're doing a cover or a tribute album, any die-hard Police fan is going to hate everything that anybody does, so it's not really going to matter, so we did take some liberties but really not that much."
"Ed Rose, the guy who recorded it, is actually a huge Police fan and he enjoyed it," concludes Josh.
And if it was the other way round and Police had to do cover a Motion City Soundtrack song, which would Josn and Justin most like them to do?
"It'd be interesting for them to do 'AOK'. It's got a lot of parts and I can see them doing them really weird."
Justin decides, "That or 'Autographs…'."
"Yeah, 'AOK' or 'Autographs…'." Josh confirms.

Watch out for Motion City Soundtrack. It may also be worth getting THEIR autographs when they slide into town - as if there's any justice in the world one day they'll be huge superstars! Visit www.motioncitysoundtrack.com for more info.


Above: Photo By Jadine Wringe



Doing Whatever It Takes

(Interview with Justin Pierre and Jesse Johnson- Taken From Black Velvet 55 - Feb 2008)

By Jadine Wringe

Motion City Soundtrack have always been a complicated band. They make perfect pop songs, but with unexpectedly weighty lyrics. They juggle feel-good synth riffs with words about addiction and despair. And in Justin Pierre they have a suitably complex frontman, who has been through a lot more than your average singer. Yet, in the 5-7 year ballpark figure of their existence, the band have never looked so free of complications as they do right now. This year has seen the release of ‘Even If It Kills Me’, the band’s third album. Consistently well executed and relentlessly catchy, ‘Even If It Kills Me is arguably their finest album to date. Described by drummer Tony Thaxton as “even more of a pop record than we’ve done before”, the album also explores new territory and is noticeably more diverse than previous efforts. In short, there is a large chance that these 13 songs might just propel Motion City Soundtrack towards the type of mainstream success they’ve been so criminally denied thus far.


However, it hasn’t been an easy ride in getting to this point. When asked what has surprised him the most about his band’s history, vocalist Justin Pierre replies simply, “The fact that we’re still together.” This is no understatement. The band have come dangerously close to losing members and even splitting up countless times, thanks in no small part to the repercussions of Pierre’s private demons. Pierre is notably open about his personal troubles, and the fact that, with ‘Even If It Kills Me’ being the first album he recorded sober, the majority of his time in Motion City Soundtrack has been plagued by drink, drugs and self-abuse.
“I think it’s important (to be open), first and foremost, for myself,” Pierre admits. “Because the more honest and open I am, the less likely I am to hide behind the lies. And if anything positive can come out of years of abuse, that is what I’m hoping for. And whether it’s from as small a thing like kids saying “holy shit”, you know, “I can relate to that, I’m not alone”, that’s good. Or somebody being like “I’ve tried and I’ve failed, I’ve tried and failed” and then they see that I do the same thing, you know, maybe it’s the third try, maybe it’s the fifteenth try, but it’s all about being positive. That’s the bottom line. If something positive can come out of it, awesome.”

Positivity is probably not a word that’s too often assimilated with Motion City Soundtrack, at least not lyrically. However, the new album does have some moments of lyrical hopefulness, in amongst some typical cynicism. “I found (the album) more to be about acceptance. Accepting the fact that there are bad times and good times, as opposed to on our last record, where most of it was from a frustrated point of view… This one’s more about, you know, things are the way they are and sometimes it’s awesome, sometimes it’s not so awesome. It’s just learning to live with yourself and who you are, and acceptance.”
Learning to live with himself is something which Pierre has had to do from scratch recently, since rediscovering his sober side after decades of failed attempts at dealing with his issues.
“Since May, I have been more myself than I have ever been in my entire life, so it’s definitely a good thing. Up until May of this year, I had always been trying to get sober because I had to, and because the band needs me sober, or this girlfriend won’t be with me if I’m drinking. So it was always like, how can I be sober around them but then as soon as I get away from them I can go and binge?” Pierre explains. “And I can’t explain what happened other than I just kind of gave up and I said “I’m fucked, and I accept the fact that I need to do something, but I don’t know what that is and I’m helpless here.” So I just… told myself that I was gonna do whatever anybody asks of me in the hopes that it will benefit me and I will get better. And that’s all I did. It was really simple. I tend to over-think things and make things way more complicated than they are. But basically, the simpler you can live your life, the easier things are.”

And it seems having a newly sober Pierre around makes things a lot easier for the rest of the band. Keyboardist Jesse Johnson is noticeably relieved. “It’s affected us enormously to have Justin back, and even just him being comfortable to express himself is just great.” he enthuses. There must come a point in each drug-fuelled musician’s life where they wonder if their music could survive without chemicals. ‘Even If It Kills Me’ is proof that not only can it survive, but it can exceed all expectations and produce something truly remarkable, something which everyone involved is hugely proud of. “There are a few songs on it that are a lot different than things we’ve done before.’ beams Thaxton when the subject of the new album is broached. ‘‘The Conversation’ is just a piano and vocal song, it’s like a straight-up ballad, pretty much. And ‘Where I Belong’ is almost this dance kind of song, and ‘Last Night’, I don’t even know, it’s pretty, almost 50’s sounding in a way. That’s definitely completely different to anything we’ve ever done before.” The band’s enthusiasm about the new record is palpable as they discuss it amongst themselves. ‘‘Last Night’ kind reminds me, structurally, a little bit of ‘Green Shirt’ by Elvis Costello, how it kind of keeps building up it keeps getting to a crescendo all the way through,” Johnson adds.
“That’s what I think is interesting,” Justin agrees, “cause we all come at it from different angles, like Tony says 1950s, and that doesn’t make any sense to me, but that’s awesome. I love that, I think because of who we are and what we listen to, we all come at it from different angles, and that to me is exciting.”

Even more exciting is the band’s steps into unfamiliar territory with the politically conscious lyrics of new track ‘Hello Helicopter’.
“Josh (Cain, guitarist) brought up the point, why not write a political song? We’ve never really done that, but I think we’re all similar in our beliefs and our ideas. The only way I felt comfortable writing lyrics for a political song was if it was from an apathetic person’s point of view, and I think that we all, on some level, have our thoughts but we sit on the couch and watch as opposed to go out and do. But I think we’re all, at the same time, starting to now become more aware and practice what we preach and do a little more than say,” Pierre explains. “And so I guess on one level it’s all very literal and specific what that song means, but then on another level, I think the song can be just about the idea that talk is cheap and anybody can say stuff, but it’s more about doing, versus saying. And that’s a universal thing, that can be about, let’s say you have a problem with the way you look or a problem with your interaction with people. It can be on a smaller level versus on an earthly level of the way that the world is going.”
Other songs on the record take a more personal approach, and ‘Can’t Finish What You Started’ tells of Pierre’s substance-free struggles with bouts of writer’s block.
“On this last record it was a little bit harder for me to express myself, and I don’t know why,” Justin admits. “But that song, in a way, was kind of what was going on with the writing of the whole record. It’s like, I had pieces of things but I didn’t have the whole thing, lyrically.”
However, the band’s ideas were soon pieced together to create ‘Even If It Kills Me’; a mix of the political and the personal; of the cynical and the negative. “I don’t know how it happened but I love that, if you quickly glance at stuff that we do, it may sound kind of dark and evil, but I think the majority of it is actually positive,” Pierre explains when questioned about the contrasts on the album. “’Even If It Kills Me’, has the word ‘Kill’ in it, and it seems kind of dark and depressing, but the meaning behind it is very much of a positive nature. It’s supposed to be like doing whatever it is that you know that you need to do in order to make a positive change, or to become a better version of yourself.”

Indeed, for a band with such a troubled history, the theme of positivity crops up often in conversation. Perhaps it is positivity which has kept the band together through thick and thin. Pierre, however has other ideas as to what has contributed to their solidarity. “Dumb luck. A lot of hard work, and then Justin comes in and ruins it all, and then more hard work, and then finally Justin gets his shit together. It’s ‘The Me Show’, starring me. But really we’ve been fortunate. We work hard and we’re lucky.”
Pierre is evidently quick to highlight the role of sheer luck in ensuring that ‘Even If It Kills Me’ was able to hit the shelves. But it is apparent that it has taken a lot more than just luck to save the band from the brink and to pull them back into shape to become the strong unit they are today. It’s easy to see that a lot of it comes down to Pierre’s personal u-turn, which it seems could only be achieved through stubborn determination. Indeed, the final words on the record are ‘I so wanna get back on track/And I’ll do whatever it takes/Even if it kills me’. I think it’s safe to say that, perhaps for the first time, Pierre truly means every last word.

Visit www.motioncitysoundtrack.com for more info.


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