Rank Your Records: Motion City Soundtrack's Justin Pierre Rates the Band's Five Albums
In advance of the band's new album, 'Panic Stations," Pierre ran through the band's back catalog in order of his favorite, so commit it to memory.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
There are a few things you should know about Justin Pierre going into this interview, mainly that doing it possibly took years off his life. "This is an impossible task and it may take two hours," he replied when I explained the concept to him, "my hair has already gone full-white." At various times, Pierre also told me we were no longer friends, cursed me out, and then seconds later asked me to help him. Then again, this sort of makes sense when you consider the introspective and borderline neurotic nature of his lyrics which are the very tendencies that have endeared Motion City Soundtrack to fans for nearly two decades and allowed the band to stay relevant while most of their Warped Tour-friendly peers have fallen to the wayside. (We doubt you're going to be seeing a Rank Your Records with, say, Matchbook Romance any time soon.)
For the record, Pierre insisted that his favorite Motion City Soundtrack album was their brand release, Panic Stations, which we recommend you all check out immediately after finishing this article. However for the purposes of Rank Your Records, we focused on the band's previous five studio recordings which include Pierre's positive and negative experiences working with producers ranging from Blink-182's Mark Hoppus to the Cars' Ric Ocasek. These albums also chronicle Pierre's struggle with sobriety, something that's been a huge part of the band's evolution and lyrical arc and thankfully something that isn't much of a concern to him these days now that he's settled down with a wife and brand new daughter. (We guess these days most of what he's "committing to memory" involves diapers and formula.)
Motion City Soundtrack is also co-headlining a tour with the Wonder Years next month with State Champs and You Blew It! supporting them (dates below). Tell Justin we're sorry we had to do this to him.
5. Go (2012)
Noisey: Why is Go your least favorite Motion City Soundtrack album?
Justin Pierre: Go is one of my favorite records to listen to, but every time we try to play a song from that record, it just kills the momentum of the show. In retrospect, I think we were all burnt out and miserable to some degree [when we were making the album] and [longtime drummer] Tony [Thaxton] left shortly after that. I was in my own misery, I was thinking about death a lot and had a lot of back pain and was grumpy and it was winter. There were so many things around that record that were weird. It was a very fun and strange experience to write in the studio and I loved working with Ed [Ackerson] who made that record and I think everything is great about it sonically, it was just missing some sort of guts. The raw emotional element? There was something about that record that was lacking and I don't know what it is. I think all of the B-sides should have been on the record and some of the songs could have taken off but I think we were going with a theme and there was a very specific feeling we were going after.
Were you happy with it when it came out?
Oh hell yeah, I loved it. We sort of thought of Go as a super indie rock record for some reason. I think every album there is some sort of reaction to the one before it. I felt like I was floating through life [when we were making Go.] A lot of people who were close to me died around that time and I just felt this strange floating sensation like I was sleepwalking through life. It wasn't bad or good, it was just weird and I feel like that somehow translated to that record. Like I said, I love the way that it sounds and if I listen to it I really like it, just that something about it was off and I don't know what it is.
4. I Am The Movie (2003)
I think I Am The Movie is really great in terms of what we pulled off in a short amount of time. We had five years to write those songs and ten days to make that entire record. Originally we recorded 12 songs and then we replaced our bass player with Matt [Taylor] and then I think spent 12 days recording his bass parts and three new songs. Those three songs were the first songs the five of us wrote together and they were "Perfect Teeth," "Autographs & Apologies," and "Modern Chemistry." I hope I can say this without upsetting anyone, but some of the vocals on the choruses are cut-and-pasted because we just didn't have time to sing more than one chorus—we had to move on to something else so that whole record was just slammed out as fast as we could and Ed [Rose] kicked our asses in order to make that happen. I dig those songs a lot and enjoy playing them live, but I don't ever listen to that record unless I have to learn something I forgot.
Most bands eventually phase out songs from their first album but it seems like you are always doing these full album shows so you have to keep revisiting them.
Yeah, I love playing those songs, you could say they have a certain kind of young energy but the content of a lot of them no longer applies so it doesn't pain me to sing them or anything. I'm singing the notes hopefully where they are supposed to be and it's fun to do that. I may not be emotionally connected to what I'm singing about but it's not important because they were written at a certain time. Of course I'm a different person now because that record it was written 13 years ago give or take a year—or five—because some of them were written in the late 90s.
3. Even If It Kills Me (2007)
Okay, your third favorite MCS album is…
Even If It Kills Me. I think I was in my head a lot when making that and I was really concerned with being able perform the songs live so I learned how to sing them softly and pretty as opposed to going for it. Now I've learned I just sing a certain way live so I can get through an entire tour without blowing out my voice, but back then I was concerned with being able to pull it off so I feel like I sort of lost a little bit in terms of my performance. I feel like I could have gotten a little bit gnarlier vocally in certain songs but I didn't. I also think because Commit This To Memory was such a big record for us we were worried we wouldn't have any songs that were as catchy. It was really fun working with Eli Janney and Adam Schlesinger (who produced half of the album) but Adam works ten times faster than most people and he's already onto the next thing before you have a chance to think about what you did, so it was kind of like playing catch up.
What was recording the other half of the record like?
Then the other half of the record was working with Ric Ocasek… when he showed up. That was probably one of the weirdest experiences because I think we thought one thing and found out another; often times he would be there for a couple of hours a day and he just confused me the whole time and I didn't really know what he was talking about. I think he's good at picking the right songs and he did expand "Even If It Kills Me" from a little ditty to a full-fledged song, but I think the MVP of that session was his engineer Chris Shaw who we later had mix Go. Even If It Kills Me was the first time I had a bit of writer's block and I was still finishing a lot of the lyrics while we were recording the song and that had never happened before. "Last Night" is one of my favorite songs we've ever done and I think a lot of the songs on that record are great but it just think it's a little on that popper side there's something gnarlier about My Dinosaur Life and the new one and I think that's missing on Even If It Kills Me.
Could you talk a little more about the experience of recording with Ric Ocasek?
For a while I was nervous about saying anything about my experience of working with Ric but it was kind of a bum-out because literally I didn't understand a thing he said. I would do something terrible and he'd go, "It doesn't get any better than that." And then I'd do something I thought was great and he'd be like, "Do it again." So I think he was just playing some sort of head game with me or us the whole time. I just don't know what happened during the experience. It didn't make any sense. I thought the songs sounded weird and confusing, I didn't know what was going on. We recorded a bunch of stuff and never really got to listen to it and then Chris [Shaw] went away for a few days and I think he spent a lot of time editing, picked the best vocal takes, and put it all together so when we got it back it sounded amazing.
2. My Dinosaur Life (2010)
What's your next favorite album?
It's My Dinosaur Life because I knew after the Even If It Kills Me experience that I wanted to be able to scream a little more. I decided these records live on longer than any live performance ever will, so there's a lot of screaming on My Dinosaur Life that I cannot pull off at all and I don't. [Laughs.] In between Even If It Kills Me and My Dinosaur Life, I started playing with the Farewell Continental and I didn't think anyone in MCS would like the stuff that I was doing with that band but then the MCS guys were like, "Hey dummy, you should use that song for us because it's not as weird as you think it is." So I think I definitely incorporated a lot of the way I wrote the Farewell Continental songs lyrically. I also got to be that teenage metalhead a little bit on that record and do a lot of weird guitar things and Andy Wallace mixed that fucker and the guitars sound so awesome.
This one seems to be the first record where your post-hardcore influences really came through.
Yeah, even to a fault. I think sound exactly like the bands I'm listening to even if nobody else does. I think there's a bit of Archers Of Loaf on that record and a lot of Fugazi and Dinosaur Jr., but you don't think of those bands when you think of us. It was our second outing with Mark [Hoppus] and it was very different. On the first one everything had to be perfect and on this one it wasn't gridded out and it was slightly more loose in the studio. But recording Commit This To Memory with him was great too because it was his first time producing a record so I think he wanted to make it sound perfect. I think he came from the school where everything had to be right on and at the time that's what people were doing, but I think in time a lot of bands, including us, have [subsequently] gotten away from that as evidenced on our later records.
1. Commit This To Memory (2005)
That seems like a perfect segue into your favorite album.
Even though I'm a different person now, there's still an element of that person who wrote that record in me when it comes to the lyrical themes. I don't struggle with the drinking stuff as much, but I struggle with the things I used drinking for, if that makes any sense. We've been playing that record so much over the last year and I have an odd relationship to it because I Am The Movie was a little more playful and then shit got real on Commit This To Memory… for me anyway. [Laughs.] Commit This To Memory was also the first record the five of us all did from scratch. There were no old songs that had to be reimagined with new players.
Where were you at during the writing process and how do you think your mindset affected things?
I was drunk for half of the writing of it and then I got sober for half of it and there's this weird duality on the record of very angry, drunk songs and very sad and guilt-ridden apology songs. I feel like Commit This To Memory, My Dinosaur Life, and Panic Stations are all connected. On Commit This To Memory, I was newly sober and trying to figure things out, My Dinosaur Life was a few years from that still trying to figure things out, and with Panic Stations I'm incredibly sober and now I'm just working on life things. I tend to think of albums in terms of lyrics, so Commit This To Memory has been on my mind a lot lately and it is one of those records where I don't think I would replace anything on it. It flows really nicely.
Commit This To Memory is also your best-selling album. Why do you think that is aside from the fact that people actually bought music in 2005?
I think it's the combination of a lot of things. For a lot of people, it was their introduction to us because we did pretty good with I Am The Movie but it exponentially exploded with Commit This To Memory. The album leaked way early and it's still sold almost 500,000 copies I think, which is kind of ridiculous for a band our size. We just did this ten-year anniversary tour on the album and there are people that are eight years old coming out, there are people who are 50-plus and a lot of people who saw us in their twenties now have kids of their own. A lot of people who were too young to see us when we made that record are 16 now but their older brother was always playing it. So, yeah, it's a strange thing but there's something about that record I still connect to a lot even though I am a different person now.
Jonah Bayer has made over 1,000 Motion City Soundtrack puns in his lifetime. Tell him that he's all right at @mynameisjonah.
Catch Motion City on tour in support of Panic Stations:
October 17- Webster Hall - New York, NY
October 18 - Webster Hall - New York, NY
October 20 - The Palladium - Worcester, MA
October 22 – Agora Theatre – Cleveland, OH
October 23 – The Fillmore - Detroit, MI
October 24 – Riviera Theatre – Chicago, IL
October 25 – First Avenue – Minneapolis, MN
October 27 – Ogden Theatre – Denver, CO
October 28 – Murray Theater – Salt Lake City, UT
October 30 – Knitting Factory Concert House – Spokane, WA
October 31 – Showbox at the Market – Seattle, WA
November 2 – The Regency Ballroom – San Francisco, CA
November 3 – The Wiltern – Los Angeles, CA
November 5 –House of Blues - Las Vegas, NV
November 6 – The Observatory – Santa Ana, CA
November 7 – SOMA – San Diego, CA
November 8 – The Marquee – Tempe, AZ
November 10 – Alamo City Music Hall – San Antonio, TX
November 11 – House Of Blues – Houston, TX
November 12 – House Of Blues – Dallas, TX
November 13 – The Blue Note – Columbia, MO
November 14 – The Pageant – St. Louis, MO
November 16 – Cannery Ballroom – Nashville, TN
November 18 – The Ritz Ybor – Tampa, FL
November 19 – Revolution – Fort Lauderdale, FL
November 20 – House of Blues – Orlando, FL
November 21 – The Masquerade – Atlanta, GA
November 23 – Amos’ Southend – Charlotte, NC
November 24 – Rams Head Live! – Baltimore, MD
November 25 – Electric Factory – Philadelphia, PA
November 27 – Starland Ballroom – Sayreville, NJ