"I've Been Lucky": Andrew McMahon on Fighting Cancer, Being an Emo God

Emo gods never die. At least ones with the passion and musical talent of Andrew McMahon, who last night opened a lineup at Fiddler's Green that included Panic! at the Disco and Weezer.

McMahon began playing piano at age nine, and by the time he was eighteen, he was signed to a major record label. Both of his bands, Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin, toured around the world. In 2005, at the age of 23, McMahon was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. He chronicled his battle with cancer in the documentary Dear Jack, which was released in 2009. Nearly a decade after beating the disease, McMahon is not just surviving, but he's thriving post-emo and jumping off pianos like never before.

We caught up with the piano-punk legend just hours before he hit the stage on Sunday night to discuss his newest album, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness; his foundation, which is based in Denver, and finding balance. 

Westword: Welcome to Denver. It seems like you've had an intense summer. How has the tour been?

Andrew McMahon: It's been incredible. I generally like what I do, so I tend to always have fun on tour. It's been amazing playing with these bands that I so admire and look up to creatively.  There's that, and also, it's summer and I've got my family out here. It feels a little like vacation at the same time.
You’re an emo rock legend. Growing up and listening to Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin, I feel like listeners really got to grow up with you through your music. What does Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness represent for you as far as your personal growth as an artist?

Well, I think for me, it probably has just as much to do with growing as an artist as it does with [growing as] a person. For me, the name of the game of this project was kind of about putting some of my past behind me. Not forgetting, but, hey, you know, we've been down a long road. In my own professional and personal life, the fallout of some of those difficulties in my early twenties played out across the landscape of my life. Move on from those and take the lessons and maybe put some of the heaviness of it behind me. I channeled that energy. The project symbolizes that transition from those heavier years into something a little brighter, focusing on the positive.

The music feels monumental, like in your single "Cecilia and the Satellite." What size band or orchestra have you been working with on your new self-titled album?

It’s funny — it's actually sort of the most pared-down version of a live show that I've done. It’s a four-piece band, and, that said, my bandmates all do a lot of heavy lifting to get these sounds to be as big as they are. Each member of the band has a number of instruments that they juggle.

What I learned when I was making this record was in some ways symbolic of what I learned in my personal life: Sometimes when you simplify, things can feel bigger. We focused the sound on fewer sounds but were able to turn everything up. Make it sound explosive; make it sound huge. 
Would you mind telling me about the inspiration your daughter has had on your music?

Oh, yeah, well, I mean, gosh, like any new relationship or major event in your life, the involvement and having a new person in my world, it makes a huge difference. Certainly having somebody to look after, a very deep relationship that’s much different than any relationship I can imagine in my life — it's added a lot of new inspiration and joy and complications. 

You were nominated for an Emmy for your work on Smash. What was it like to work with a big company like NBC?

Honestly, I felt pretty insulated. I was brought into the whole NBC Smash world by the guy who wrote and was the show runner for Smash, Josh Safran. Josh and I had mutual friends in the world, and I knew he was a fan. Smash came along right when I had really shut down or temporarily shut down my personal career. I was like, "I'm not gonna work on a record for a minute; I'm going to go home and take some time off." And Josh was like, "Look, there are a bunch of writers writing music for this show."

So I threw everything at it, and it was a really fun project for me because it got me out of my head and got me writing songs that weren’t so focused on me. The production liked the songs, and they asked me to write a few more. They tended to take the songs I wrote and just put it in the show. And then they submitted me for that Emmy, and I got nominated. It was a pretty charmed moment in my career at a time when I was lost and confused.
You’re a cancer survivor and have dedicated a lot to other cancer survivors with the Dear Jack Foundation. It seems like these huge accomplishments and mile markers, like the release of Everything in Transit, have coincided with the most terrifying personal moments. How did you cope? Is there still that balance in your life?

Well, I think that there's sort of this reality that it's always been a thing in my life. I've been really fortunate in so many respects. And I've also encountered a lot of strange side roads that for someone my age, especially, there were just things that I found early on and then later again in my twenties. There is this yin and yang to it. I've been fortunate: I've always wanted to know what I wanted to do, since I was nine years old. I've traveled the world playing music for a living. For me, for some of the trauma and tragedy I've encountered, I've also been so fortunate that I just realized the path that I'm on is a little extreme. There are certainly some low points, but the high points are so high, so when you average it out, I've been lucky.

How did your nonprofit Dear Jack Foundation come to be based out of Denver?

We've sort of slowly made our home in Denver. A year — coming up on maybe close to a year and a half — ago, I started looking for a new executive director. My executive director was moving on to work in the private sector, so we were looking to bring somebody on full-time. The first candidate who we really fell in love with for the foundation was based out of Denver. I met him through another musician and philanthropist, also based in Denver. Slowly but surely, we put together a small staff. It’s been some of the most rewarding work I've done. The steps that we've been able to do here in the city, out of Presbyterian/St. Luke's [Medical Center] — we've done a lot of work with adolescents and adults. 
You’ve played a lot of seriously intimate shows in Denver, and you seem to have a real cult following in this city. Do you like the energy of the crowds out here?

It’s one of my favorite cities. I've done a lot of shows here; I've got some roots here with the foundation. 

I have to ask: Playing in Denver, are you ever overloaded with cannabis smoke?

[Laughs] That’s not really a problem for me. I definitely don’t mind the smell of it. I wouldn’t say, once it got legal out here, that anything changed. There was that thought, "Oh, my gosh, is it going to be really noticeable?" I've not noticed the effect.

What can the audience expect from your performance on this tour?

Well, we have some pretty fun production elements. As far as opening acts, I was really motivated on this tour to deliver a bigger production than most people expect out of the opener. We've got four of those guys up on the stage, wacky, wavy, inflatable arm-flailing tube men. We have this huge twenty-foot-in-diameter parachute that I take out into the crowd. A lot of party tricks.

To be touring with Panic! at the Disco and Weezer seems like the trifecta of punk rock/emo/indie music. Especially with regard to Weezer: Are they a band you listened to in the past? Does it still feel surreal?

Oh, yeah, I mean, absolutely. I don’t think the draw of the whole situation will wear off at any point. My second band was a Weezer tribute band. I grew up on their music, idolizing and analyzing Rivers [Cuomo]'s songwriting, both in my adolescence and in my early days of writing songs and playing shows. Being backstage with these guys and saying hi and having our kids play together – it's surreal. Myself and the whole band, we go watch Weezer in the pit the whole time. I'm very much of a fan now, if not more than back then. I appreciate what it takes to have a career as long as theirs and still be making great music, and still putting on one of the best rock concerts I've been to in a long time.  
Out of any band, any time period, do you have a favorite song?

That’s really tough. I mean, the list is long. For some reason, "Life on Mars," by David Bowie, comes to mind really fast. "Time to Move On," from Tom Petty's Wildflowers album, comes up pretty quickly. "In My Room," by the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson has always just been massive for me. Annie Lennox's "Why." I can just keep going; there's sort of a laundry list of those songs for me that I'll always go back to. Guys like Paul Simon, Neil Young, Carole King — those records are huge for me. When I was a kid, my parents and my brothers and sisters would play me all of it, at nine and ten, I was just a sponge absorbing that stuff. Records like the Doors and Grateful Dead. The classic-rock stuff.

So about as eclectic as your own music?

That definitely plays a role in it. I listen to everything from dance to folk, literally everything in between. For me, it's more about the song than the aesthetic. For me, to make a record that sounds more like a simple piano arrangement, and some days I want to build it up and make it sound like an orchestra or big-band pop song. It always depends. 

If you could have any profession other than your own, what would it be?

Gosh, that’s tough. I mean, I love to make things. If I weren’t in music, I would be doing some sort of design or building or architecture. Something in the visual arts. I'm very concept-oriented. I love the idea of hatching a concept and seeing it through to the finish. Having a thought, seeing it through to the finish and seeing something beautiful come to life. I'd attempt to do that in some other art. 

See the full slideshow from Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Panic! at the Disco and Weezer at Fiddler's Green. 

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Lindsey Bartlett is a writer, photographer, artist, Denver native and weed-snob. Her work has been published in Vanity Fair, High Times and Leafly, to name a few.
Contact: Lindsey Bartlett