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Artist Spotlight: Andrew McMahon talks new music, touring with Dashboard Confessional and the therapy of nostalgia

Andrew McMahon’s career is already the stuff of legends- from multiple eras and musical projects, a cancer diagnosis, a memoir and more, rebirth and reinvention are part of the process. Now, McMahon and his latest iteration are on the road with Dashboard Confessional for a summer tour packed with both nostalgia and a hopeful outlook on what’s next. For McMahon, that includes a new album, spending time with family and even the development of a TV series centered around his experiences with cancer. 

Atlas sat down with McMahon as he recuperated from a late night game of flip cup in Richmond to talk about touring after the pandemic, the new album and his work with the Dear Jack Foundation.

Atlas Artist Group: With your new album on the horizon, what can fans expect from the sound and where did you draw the inspiration for the music?

Andrew McMahon: From the sound side of things, I think it’s one of the most adventurous records I’ve ever made, honestly. I got to work with two of- in my mind- two of the best producers out there- a guy named Tommy English, who works with Kacey Musgraves, he did the Borns records and works with K-Flay and just really, really great talent in the studio with me. Another guy named Jeremy Hatcher who engineers for Rick Rubin, for Kid Harpoon and worked on the Harry Styles record and Maggie Rogers- just like this crack team of really wonderful humans who also just know how to make great sounding records. I think from the song standpoint…because one, I had to kind of wait to make this record. I didn’t have to, but I didn’t feel like…making music during the pandemic just didn’t sound inspiring to me.

I need to be in a room with people. I need to sort of feel that energy and that back and forth. In the couple years that it just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to be in recording studios, I chose to write a book instead. I collected a cache of songs over a few years that gave me the opportunity to really reflect on who I was, where I was- a guy who’s been making music for half my life now closing in on a dare I say, a seminal birthday most people don’t usually talk about celebrating, which is my 40th, which is coming up. It gave me a chance, having so much time, to really say, what do you want to say on this record? For me, it was reflect on where you’ve been, reflect on what you’ve been through, but also talk about what’s next and clear the deck if you can say that. Look, the jury’s out and will be until it comes out probably next year in full, but I’m super proud of this batch of songs. I think it’s some of my best work and I’m very excited for people to hear it.

Atlas: You’re back on the road consistently for the first time since the pandemic and shows are back in a different capacity. How does it feel being back on the road and touring now, as opposed to before the pandemic?

McMahon: For me, I’ve been fortunate to sort of keep doing my job in the midst of the pandemic. I basically just found any way that I could do shows. We did drive-in concerts, I did livestreams, I did take a tour out last fall where we were like locked down in the backstage. I’ve done every version of the pandemic touring, and I’m glad I got to cuz it was a way to be a fly on the wall in the conversation around the entire country. It was a way to entertain people who were going through something difficult- including myself. It was a way for me to feel connected. But this summer feels markedly different than the entire last couple of years that we’ve been doing shows.

People feel like they’re relaxed in the audience. I know I’m grateful and it feels like the audiences are grateful to be free of this thing on some level. I mean, obviously it’s not gone completely, but I think the anxiety over its potential impact; clearly the temperature has dropped quite a bit that people seem way more free in an audience. You can feel it, it’s palpable and taking a show out like this one with Dashboard and these openers…we wanted to curate a night that gave people access to their memories and gave them a chance to make new memories around their shared history. It really is, in my mind, the perfect package for this very moment in time.

Atlas: There’s also been a resurfacing of nostalgia coming out of the pandemic- people are really reflecting on and revisiting the past in a way I’ve never experienced.

McMahon: It’s funny because, if you followed my career at all, you know I’m the last person to try and push that button- nostalgia, yes, but trying to retread the past has not typically been my M.O. But I’m sort of there with the rest of the people in the sense that, in this particular moment for a couple of months, trying to create an environment that allows you to almost travel back in time before all of this craziness of the last couple years. It feels like good therapy in the weirdest way. It makes sense to me why in this moment people are craving that because weirdly, the guy who never craves it- me- is like, this feels pretty good. I get it and I’m there for it even though that’s not usually the thing that I’m there for.

Atlas: What’s on your tour rider now that’s different from when you started out on the road?

McMahon: There’s a lot more water, I’ll say that. It’s a healthier rider for sure. I’ve tried to transition from potato chips to like the healthy popcorn. There are some things that are very much the same. It used to be just Mexican beer and now it’s like IPAs and local craft beers. It used to be Jagermeister, now it’s Mezcal. We have more sophisticated palates now. I mean, not that sophisticated, but we try and be grownups out here. 

Atlas: Did you pick up any interesting or offbeat hobbies during the pandemic lockdown?

McMahon: So it was the summer before the pandemic that I ventured into three months of surfing lessons. I’ve always wanted to surf but I spent the time and the money just to hone the skill enough so I could do it on my own and feel confident. So it was pre-pandemic that I had started. But during the pandemic it was the one thing that I could really do where I felt like this is great exercise, I’m in nature, I can commune with my environment and it became an obsession over the course of the pandemic. I would wake up when they closed the state parks. I found a city lot that I could park in and hike in and go surf right at dawn every morning five days a week. So that became a practice for me throughout the pandemic. 

Now I’ve been on the road for like three or four weeks and I’m desperate to get back in the water and I will go surfing in Waco, Texas at the Waco wave ranch or whatever surf ranch or whatever it is in the middle of this tour. I’m like, okay, just gimme some water. Even if it’s chlorinated and it’s a fake wave, I’m going. That’s where I put a lot of my interest and my effort for sure during the pandemic.

Atlas: In my conversations with artists over the last two years, a lot of focus has been on the struggles of the music business. Instead of focusing on that, what’s been the most rewarding or genuinely happy part of being in the music industry?

McMahon: It’s twofold for me. Making records, writing songs is why I do this. I started playing music and writing songs when I was nine years old. I think it was that feeling of making contact with my subconscious and then kind of being able to bring it out into the world via this device of putting my hands on keys and singing and that was like the missing puzzle piece, if that makes sense. To get to do that on a global scale and go through that process, but then get to curate it into a finished piece of music that people can listen to in their phones or in their cars or whatever- it never gets old for me. And having taken a little break from it to make this record, I think it’s easy when you’ve done this as long as I have to not to take it for granted, but to believe that it’s always there. 

And I think coming out of the pandemic, I was really able to make contact with the why of it- like why I do this and why I’m so lucky to do it. In February when we started back in the studio, I just remember just being like, ‘oh shit, I love this job’. I love the act of creating songs and I love to be in a room with friends and get to build things and make things for a living and I do think the pandemic in a weird way really shined a light on that for me.

And then getting back into the live space- we’re playing in fields in front of thousands of people on this tour. As a nerd, that’s how I started seeing music when I was a kid. We went to amphitheater shows- I saw R.E.M for the first time and Counting Crows when I was in the seventh and eighth grade. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do was play and headline stages outside in the summer and I get to right now. Granted, it’s because Chris and I paired up and we kind of pooled our fan bases and really built out this experience. But even if it’s a little bit of a work around on my thesis of, ‘I want to headline in the summer outside’, I’m grateful for it. After all this madness there are still dreams that are coming true for me in this business and that’s a very special thing and I feel really lucky.

Atlas: Your Dear Jack Foundation benefit is coming up and you’ve done so much with the organization since its founding. What are some of the most memorable things you’ve accomplished with the foundation?

McMahon: There are a lot of good memories and a lot of hard ones, too. We’ve lost people along the way- dealing in illnesses that can end up being deadly is a hard thing to do. I think the thing for me that has moved me the most with Dear Jack is we do this program called Breathe Now. It was really born out of what I would say were the hardest years for my wife and I- after about a year of remission when I was “healthy enough” to put my feet on the ground and get back to life, I really ran as hard into the fire as humanly possible. You take what I do for a living and you add some serious trauma and PTSD to that and I was like a bit of a human wrecking ball for a lot of years. I didn’t realize at the time- it was just this insane overreaction to feeling like my mortality was at risk. We built a program called Breathe Now, not necessarily for people who are as crazy as I was- because I think most people do better than I did. [It’s] a program that’s built for partners who have seen each other through a cancer diagnosis and treatment and are on the other side.

We do these amazing retreats where we try and help couples rebuild their lives post-cancer. It’s been beautiful because it’s helped me to see my wife more. When somebody gets sick, their whole family gets sick with them. It’s not a single person’s disease- there’s a whole infrastructure. And most of the people that support you when you’re sick don’t have the kind of support that you do. You have them, but they don’t have everybody else saying, ‘are you okay?’ I think building a program that checks in with the spouses as much as it does with the patients and tries to tell them this is normal to feel scared, it’s normal to have these post traumatic stress situations and you can rebuild your life. That program for me continues to be a source of inspiration and a place where I feel like I have a lot of experience and a lot to offer for our young patients.

Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness is appearing at Arizona Financial Theatre to close out their tour with Dashboard Confessional on September 7! Grab last minute tickets here.


Story by Olivia Khiel
Photo by Taylor Knauf

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