Andrew McMahon on the Key to Building a Dynamic Live Show: You Have to Feel 'Inspired and Spontaneous'

Joel Barhamand
Andrew McMahon photographed on Aug. 18, 2018 at Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York.

How do you get a crowd on their feet? Just ask seasoned pro Andrew McMahon, who returned to Firefly Festival in Dover, Delaware on Saturday (June 22) to regale fans with hits from across all three of his trademark projects.

Even the most exhausted of festivalgoers couldn't resist dancing to the Jack's Mannequin and Something Corporate songs in the mix, as well as Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness favorites like "Cecilia and the Satellite" and "Fire Escape," plus cuts from the group’s 2018 album Upside Down Flowers. 

During his turn on the Lawn Stage, McMahon shared a few secrets about how to make a show really pop. Hint: It involves sprinting around the stage and barricades, and if you're really ambitious, crowdsurfing with giant inflatable animals.

Shortly before the energetic set, Billboard caught up with McMahon to talk about touring, his recent cover of Kacey Musgrave’s “Slow Burn,” and what’s happening with the Dear Jack Foundation.


You just did a few shows in Hawaii. How was that?

Awesome. Hawaii is a thing I’ve been doing now with my family. It’s this excuse to be, like, "Well, I wanna go on vacation," and there’s this great jazz club, where they have a piano. It reminds me very much of what doing an act in the ‘60s must’ve been like -- you do an early show and a late show. For me, with the catalogue being what it is, it’s fun because I did four shows in two nights and every show was completely different. It’s a great format for opening a little bit of a window into the process and into the storytelling.

And it helps pay for vacation. [Laughs.] So you scoot over to Maui… when you have a little kid [daughter Cecilia], the whole adventure vacation -- like, backpacking across Europe with a 5-year-old -- has become less appealing to me. We’ve sort of let that take a little bit of a backseat and instead just find a cool beach or pool nearby and sit in the sun. 

Otherwise, you’ve been off the road for a while, but were there any memorable or funny moments or mishaps on your tour earlier this year?

We did have a really good one. The bus broke down and we were on our way to a show [in] Seattle, I think probably from Portland. We were somewhere in the mountains and basically, our truck made it to the gig, but we were still on the side of the road. We showed up at soundcheck, and our truck driver -- just having seen our set-up, and having our technical specs -- got the local road crew to build our entire stage. It was really comprehensive at that point, like risers and a lot of instruments, a lot of stations to set up. We showed up, none of our techs having been there, and it was, like, flawlessly put together by our truck driver. That was a first time for me on a tour. The show wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for “Hippie John,” as he is called.

You’ve toured with so many acts. Who has been your favorite to play with? 

I got to play with Billy Joel in the last couple of years -- that was a major moment for me. 

Who’s still on the wish list?

I love the Young the Giant guys. It’s funny, they have a couple of bands that I’ve wanted to take out with me, like Alice Merton. I love Alice Merton. And the Coin guys. I like a lot of the bands that are sort of, you know, operating in a space that I like to think I’m operating in, which is trying to take alternative music but filter it through a pop lens. You know, don’t be afraid of big melodies and don’t make it all about being cool. Find your own voice at the end and try, without going pure pop, find ways to make left-of-center, kinda pop-sounding records. Bands like Coin and Saint Motel -- I’ve always been curious about getting on the road with them. 

Saint Motel’s show is amazing. Their sax player is great. Who doesn’t love live instruments like that?

Yeah, you know, it’s a fine line. There’s so much available in the realm of production right now. It’s fantastic. You have to make sure that when you get on stage, even if you have a track running for this or that, that the body of what you’re doing feels inspired and spontaneous. I think people get stuck in that trap of just hitting play and closing their eyes and singing along.

Probably one of my favorite bands of the last five or ten years is Sylvan Esso. They’re a prime example of when it works. That small set-up and yes, tracks -- but there are so many live elements, and [frontwoman Amelia Meath] is such an amazing singer. You just have to walk that line and figure out what works for you so that you feel like you’re giving a real live show. 

What’s your favorite song to play live right now?

Off the new record, I’ve been having a lot of fun with “House in the Trees.” That’s a tune that’s just, like, a slow rocker. There’s just something about it that feels very “windows down,” and I’m excited to do it here [at Firefly] -- it’ll be the first festival we play it at. Also, we were rehearsing yesterday, and “Dead Man’s Dollar” -- for some reason that song just always feels good to me live. And we’re going to do [Jack’s Mannequin song] “Bruised” tonight, we haven’t done that with the full band in a long time. That was a lot of fun to sort of resurrect for the sake of the show.

The last set I saw of yours was at Panorama Festival in New York, when you crowd-surfed on a giant inflatable duck. I’m excited to see what antics you bring to the set today. 

I literally did a massive Amazon order of inflatable animals and we’re going to see what happens. [On our account] you never know if you’re ordering for me or my daughter. [An inflatable unicorn] could be for a 5-year-old, but no, it’s for Dad. (Ed. note: McMahon indeed surfed on an inflatable flamingo during the band’s set later that day.)

Speaking of Amazon, you just put out your cover of Kacey Musgraves’ “Slow Burn,” which was released as an Amazon Original. How did this come together?

Amazon reached out to us. They were looking for cool, exclusive content and were happy to pay for the production. To me, anytime someone is willing to offer you a scenario to stretch what you do and put you in a studio with someone you’d love to work with -- in this case Butch [Walker] -- that’s cool. I love Butch! And they were like, “We’d love it if you could do a cover series, you know something out of the box, something people wouldn’t expect you to do.” My daughter and my wife had been playing [Golden Hour] and I’d been like, “Yeah, there’s a lot of cool stuff on there,” but Jake [Reuter at Crush Music] sort of shipped it off to me and I really did an intensive on that album.

You’ve mentioned you love all of Golden Hour, so why choose this song?

Originally I was going to do “High Horse,” and two days before we were going -- ‘cause I’m kind of a procrastinator, so it’s usually, like, “Okay. I’m going to the studio tomorrow so I’ll work on it today!” -- I started playing “High Horse,” and I just couldn’t do it justice. I wanted to do it because I love that song, but “Slow Burn,” hysterically enough, wasn’t my favorite at first, but then I listened again and I was like, “We should do that one.” Butch and I just had so much fun taking it to that slightly darker place and working around the edges and the rhythm a little more plain and straight, which I think gave it a lot of space to breathe and become something special. 

You really made it your own, which is awesome to hear as an Andrew McMahon fan.

Yeah, I think you always wanna be careful when you go into the studio to make a piece of work that’s not your own, or that’s written by someone else. You want to honor it. Someone took a lot of time drafting a really beautiful record and you want to do a combination and be deferential to the artist who recorded it, but also make it worth being in the world. If you’re not contributing... if you just cover a song straight on, note for note, what’s the point? It’s not going to be better than the [original] singer’s. There are artists who’ve taken songs and given them something special and that’s, at least for me, what I try to do if I’m going to do a cover. I took it pretty seriously. 

Now that Upside Down Flowers has had some time to breathe, what songs have you seen really resonate with fans?

Songs like “Ohio” -- we played an acoustic set the other day and when we played the first few parts of that song, everyone was like, “AHHHH!” 

Did the overall response to Upside Down Flowers surprise you?

Well, we put out UDF knowing it wasn’t going to be a “radio record.” It was meant to be this sort of fluid thing. I just wrote these songs in a month in my house and recorded them the next month in Santa Monica, and I wasn’t even supposed to be making a record. We just did it because it was just as natural as breathing. It felt right.

But I think in my world, especially in the last handful of years, putting out records has been like. “How big of a bat can you swing?” Whereas this was really more of an…"artist record” or something. You know what I mean? Like, it was meant to be a true singer-songwriter record, without the intention of just going in and turning everything up so it explodes off the speakers. It was a little more restrained. So to have it come out and see songs become what they have has been awesome. 

It’s cool how a song can transform over time, especially once you see an artist play it live. That can totally change it.

We have the benefit of access to so much amazing technology to make music with, and to distribute it, and I’m a fan of progress, so I’ll always stand on the side of progress. I think the trick of the moment that we have is that records that deserve to be listened to a few times to really sink into our bones aren’t having that moment. [I might be] complaining as the old guy on the scene who wants that to happen. You always want people to listen to your music.

But what I found is when you make something that is a little bit out of the current or contemporary, whether it’s the sonic landscape or the topical -- it will surprise you and has continued to surprise me how, a year or two later, all of a sudden these records you perceive as having done okay, become these powerhouses of connectivity and really spiritually bind you to the people who ended up finding them. I always sort of thought that’s what UDF was going to be, even as I put it out, and I feel like I’m finding, as the months go on, that’s the feedback. Which is great, it just takes time sometimes. 

Has there been a record like that -- one that really changed over time for you -- that someone else made?

There are probably a million of those records. When I was a kid, there were records like that -- I grew up a Billy Joel fan, not so much a [Elton] John fan, and then all of a sudden I discovered Madman Across The Water, which is a very strange record. It has a lot of the hits on it, but also these very bizarre, orchestral twists and turns. Or Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, putting that record on and going, “I know I’m supposed to like this record but I’m just not sure,” then walking out of my room and all of a sudden going, “Wait, I think I need to put that back on.” And then it became an obsession for me. The Pinkerton album by Weezer. You know, those are records that really sort of took hold of me when I was younger but weren’t “first listen” records for me. 

You got to tour with The Weez a few years, so I’m going to guess you nerded out a bit.

For sure, they’ve been heroes of mine for a long time, so to have spent as much time as I have with them, toured with them, really gotten to know the guys in that band and their families is like...you have those “pinch me” things. I was fourteen in a bedroom, sneaking Coors Lite and turning on The Blue Album and me and my friends would be, like, wrestling and beating each other up while we listened to those songs. To share a stage and have some small window to their creative process and their lives, to be able to connect on that level, was really cool.

And I mean “nerding out” in a good way!

Yeah, I think it’s good! I mean, all of us are nerds. If you’re into making music ‘cause it’s “cool,” I think you’re missing the point. It’s about being vulnerable, and if you can’t accept someone’s “nerding out” over music, then how could you have ever been a music fan? If you’re not a music fan, how could you be doing this for a living? So yeah, I have nerded out many times myself and embarrassed myself in front of a handful of artists. 

You’ve just gotta talk to them. You have to take the plunge.

I’m a Jenny Lewis superfan, and I had a friend playing in a band that she was touring with. That was when The Voyager came out -- that was my jam. That was a record that took hold of me in that long format. Somebody introduced me to her and I was like, “Jenny, I’m such a huge fan. Like, your record just…” I gushed for a second and she just turned around and walked the other way and I was like, “Nooo!” It was explained to me later that that probably wasn’t the best move at the moment and that it had nothing to do with me, and I wouldn’t begrudge her if it did, because truthfully it’s one of my favorite things that ever happened to me.

At the very least, you made eye contact.

My buddy Ryan Miller from Guster just sent me this animated series he’s doing, where he interviews people who just have great stories to tell, and one of them is a friend of his meeting Bob Dylan and having Dylan just slap him in the face, basically. Not literally, but he said something horrible to the guy, like, “I don’t know you,” and walked away or something. The [friend] was just like, “He talked to me! He talked to me!” Sometimes people aren’t always going to be on their best behavior.

Finally, can you give an update on the Dear Jack Foundation?

It is so full steam ahead with Dear Jack. Last year was our biggest fundraising year to date; we raised over a million dollars. I’m hoping the same for this year. We’re doing a thing called the 300k Challenge right now, where we’re trying to raise $300,000 to go towards our yearly programming. That date ends on 11/11, so that’s the “Konstantine” reference (Ed. note: the fan favorite Something Corporate song features the lyric "it's 11:11”). [The benefit] is the one day a year I play it. Our 11/11 benefit will be on the West Coast this year.

This is a seriously under-served population that needs our support and frankly if you’re a music fan, you probably fall somewhere between the ages of 18 and 40, which is kind of like our sweet spot and also close to our demographic of patients. So if you know someone who is sick, send them our way and we’re happy to try and help in any way we can.