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Andrew McMahon arrives at Mates Studio in North Hollywood wearing a form-fitting Police concert T-shirt and tight black trousers. His features appear chiseled compared to the roundish 19-year-old face that became famous in 2002. McMahon’s body—lean, muscular, healthy—looks nothing like the frail, cancer-ravaged figure seen in Dear Jack, the haunting November 2009 documentary that details the Dana Hills High graduate’s battle with leukemia. Entering the large, generic rehearsal space used by McMahon’s band Jack’s Mannequin, the piano-pounding front man clutches a cup of Lamill coffee he purchased near his Silver Lake home overlooking Sunset Boulevard. It’s a balmy, blue-sky February day around noon, and McMahon—although admitting to being busier than ever—radiates the focused verve of a man in complete control of a career that just might be peaking.
His other band, Something Corporate, the seminal Orange County alt-pop act that went on hiatus in 2004, announced in December they would headline the second day of Bamboozle at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. It will be their first time onstage together since 2006, when the group played three songs following a full set by Jack’s Mannequin. McMahon, grinning, dishes that Something Corporate spent the previous week in Santa Monica recording together. “We just hung out in the studio for a week,” he says from a black, metal folding chair near his piano. “First time we had been in a studio together in, God, probably four or five years.”
While in the studio, the band revisited a couple of demos that never received proper releases: Guitarist Josh Partington’s “Wait,” which had been played acoustic before, enjoyed the full-band treatment, and the band revamped McMahon’s “Letters to Noelle.’” Rough cuts of both songs originally appeared on the super-obscure Galaxy Sessions EP that McMahon gave away to members of Something Corporate’s mailing list who sold more than five tickets to the band’s May 11, 2001, show at the House of Blues. (The group became the first unsigned OC band to sell out the venue.) The freshly recorded renditions of those songs will appear on an as-yet-untitled “best of” compilation scheduled for release in late April or early May on Universal Music Enterprises, McMahon says.
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The 27-year-old remains tight-lipped about the future of Something Corporate. “You’re gonna pry it out of me—is that the deal?” he asks with a laugh. “Look, we are having a great time playing together and seeing one another, and we had a great time in the studio, but I think, for me, Jack’s Mannequin is my priority, and making music in that wing of my life is where my head is at. But, at the same time, if we are having a blast, I don’t rule anything out.”
McMahon wrote much of the material for the upcoming Something Corporate retrospective as a teenager and had not listened to those songs in years. “It was definitely a trip down memory lane,” he says. “Definitely a lot of ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe I said that.’ But for the most part, it has been a celebration for us. To have the four of us back together, interacting on that level and putting things together for a record and getting ready to do a show—it’s been exciting. It’s been fun. It’s been a good way for us to kind of mend some fences from the time when we didn’t completely reconcile.”
* * *
Music has more or less dominated McMahon’s life since a very young age. Born in Massachusetts, he moved with his family to New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio before landing in Orange County; his parents live in the same Dana Point house where Something Corporate practiced in the garage. Lin McMahon recalls her son immersing himself in music after the loss of his uncle. “Andrew and he had a special connection, and he was devastated,” she says. “Andrew played piano and wrote poems and music at age 9. We knew then he had a unique gift. But more than just the talent, he had a huge desire to talk to people with his music, just to be heard. It was never about the fame or the money or being a rock star.”
In the spring of 1998, while a high-school sophomore, McMahon attended a party where he met guitarist and fellow songwriter Josh Partington, a junior attending nearby Aliso Niguel High. The teens both loved old blues artists and other music that predated Green Day. After numerous jam sessions, they decided to form a band; McMahon brought in Dana Hills pals Kevin Page (bass) and Brian Ireland (drums), and Something Corporate took shape. “I knew this kid. There was something about him, something I wanted to be a part of,” recalls Partington. “Andrew is easily one of the more talented people I have ever met. He was born to be a lead singer.”
McMahon’s songwriting—with Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin— has been marked by confessional outpourings of a decidedly gentle, even philosophical bent. But the song that shot Something Corporate to national stardom—and perhaps prompted its composer to eventually pursue another project—is entirely out of character for the genuinely nice guy. Based on a real-life near-altercation, “If U C Jordan” is vindictive, mean and juvenile but extremely catchy. The song—included on the band’s 2002 major-label debut, Leaving Through the Window—features multiple “fuck you”s and closes with “I don’t care if you dye your hair/You’ll always be a little redhead bitch.”
“There was tense animosity there when I wrote it,” McMahon said in an interview with this reporter in April 2002. “I know it sounds really cheesy to say this, but I wrote it more as a coping thing. I was so frustrated. I’ve never been challenged to a fight in my entire life. I went in my garage and wrote this thing in, like, 15 minutes. I basically just took a piss with the song.”
Now, sitting in the rehearsal space, his publicists—one each from Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate—in another room, McMahon reflects on the song he penned in a fit of teen rage. He leans forward, and although a recorder sits in clear view, he speaks as if sharing a secret. “I got to be honest,” he says in a near-whisper. “What ‘If U C Jordan’ did for us, I will always be thankful for. Just in the sense that it really was what launched the band, and we’ll play it live when we go back to Bamboozle because it’s so synonymous with the band. But of all the things I’ve created in my life, I’d say it’s probably one of the things I’m least proud of.
“I don’t find a lot of inspiration now, or even in the Something Corporate catalog, in anger. For whatever reason, it became such a thing when it wasn’t supposed to. We put the EP out because [label] Drive-Thru[/Geffen] was just like, ‘Do a little introductory piece.’ Nobody knew who the band was. Our assumption was that we were going to put out this little EP and kind of heat up the waters, and then go and do a full-length record that would be a real release. And then KROQ just grabbed ‘Jordan.’ We didn’t push it. I mean, obviously, we made a video for it to follow the success, but I did it as a joke. And to the extent that there’s a human being on the other end of that story, I don’t feel particularly pleased with myself to have dragged that so far out in public.”
Did McMahon ever contact “Jordan”? Apologize? Did they make peace?
“You know, this is probably not the place to talk about it,” he says, with a bashful yet assertive smile. “Y’know what I mean?”
* * *
In 2003, Something Corporate released a follow-up, North, which hit No. 24 on the Billboard 200—back when having a Top 40 record still meant serious sales and money. But the promise of larger paychecks couldn’t prevent an acute case of burnout.
“In a hotel room in Australia in 2004, we all sat down and had the conversation,” McMahon says. “As much as we might have nitpicked one another and fought and done all these things when it came to making the music, we were super-serious about getting on the same page and making it work. We had just reached a point where our relationships had deteriorated enough [that] to bring that into the studio just seemed like a bad idea.
“It was just that moment of relief when we knew it had gone as far it could go before it imploded,” he continues. “And we had seen a lot of friends in other bands on other labels sharing the stage with us at the time who did implode. We were taking those as a cautionary tale and saying, ‘Let’s not to do this.’”
McMahon returned to Orange County and spent time with family and old friends, cleared his head and frequented familiar places such as Gina’s Pizza and Pastaria, the Draft Choice, and the bar at Harpoon Henry’s. “Just Dana Point Harbor in general, for me, when I was living and working on records down there, you could find me at the harbor on almost any given day for just two or three hours, just listening, staring out at the water, making notes,” he says. “For a long time, I lived right above, right on the bluff of Dana Point with my family, so walking down to the bluffs and looking out at the harbor was a huge part of my life down there.”
While still performing with Something Corporate, McMahon had started writing the material that resulted in Jack’s Mannequin’s 2005 debut, Everything In Transit. It was a solo side project that he expected would coexist with the band as an outlet for his more personal songwriting, and he even started touring as Jack’s Mannequin.
But exhaustion crept up on him, and he lost his voice, forcing him to cancel a show and go to a doctor. Noticing his pale complexion, the doctor ordered blood work, which revealed he had acute lymphatic leukemia.
“When I got sick, it changed everything,” McMahon says. “It really put a lot of things into perspective for me as far as the value of time and how you spend it. Jack’s was the authentic life for me at that point. And so while, yeah, [Something Corporate] didn’t officially break up, we’ve been on a five-year hiatus or whatever. My life changed considerably during that time, and my priorities changed a lot, too.”
While McMahon was working on Everything In Transit, he became friends and collaborated with probably the last person with whom you would associate him—Tommy Lee. McMahon’s piano-driven, melodic, emotive rock isn’t what you would expect to grab the attention of a hair-metal icon. “And who would have known we would have been so chummy?” McMahon says, laughing.
The Mötley Crüe drummer dug Something Corporate, particularly stuff off North, and wanted to work with McMahon on what would become Lee’s 2005 release, Tommyland: The Ride. So he gave the youngster a call.
“And I’m like, ‘Oh, shit, cool.’ Tommy wanted me to come in and write songs with him,” McMahon recalls. “I dropped everything I was doing that day and rolled into the studio with him up in the Hollywood Hills and began this six-month stint in which we were recording and writing together, and he ended up playing on Everything In Transit. He even sat in with us for a couple of songs at a show.
“We don’t get to see each other as often as we used to, but when we do, it’s always a great reuniting. He’s been a good friend to me over the years, for sure.”
That good friend can be heard narrating Dear Jack. Originally meant to capture the making of Everything In Transit, the film wound up documenting McMahon’s 2005 fight with cancer with intimate, hand-held footage. It’s the visual equivalent of flipping through the most brutal pages of someone’s diary, though McMahon maintains a brave face and his winning sense of humor throughout. Viewers witness his hair falling out in clumps as he endures radiation treatments, as well as his breakup with his longtime girlfriend Kelly, another Dana Hills High graduate.
McMahon admits that he found it difficult to view—and that’s why it took so long to make. In order to get through the process, he had to remove himself from the story and approach Dear Jack from a filmmaker’s perspective. When the documentary was completed, he had reservations about putting that much of his personal life out for public consumption, but by then, it was too late.
“People assume they know a lot about me because I’m pretty open and my songs are often autobiographical, but at the same time, I’ve done quite a bit to make sure my private life is still private,” he says. “So it was scary to give people that much of a window into how I interact with the people close to me.
“That said, the value of the story and what we thought we were going to be able to accomplish raising money with the movie and giving people who had maybe dealt with a similar situation a touchstone seemed important enough to push forward and,” he continues with a laugh, “I had already agreed to do it three years ago.”
Although Dear Jack is named after a song he had written before his illness about someone he knew who suffered from childhood leukemia, it has a happy ending. McMahon and Kelly reunited and have been married for three years, and thanks to a stem-cell transplant from his sister Kate, who is 17 months his senior, McMahon’s leukemia remains in remission. “I have this conflict about people saying, ‘You saved him,’” says Kate, who lives in San Francisco. “It’s such a no-brainer. I couldn’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t do that. I would have amputated my right arm for him.”
In 2006, McMahon founded the nonprofit charity the Dear Jack Foundation to raise funds for cancer research; proceeds from the sale of the DVD, which can be purchased at DearJackMovie.com, go to the foundation. And in January, Jack’s Mannequin announced their fall 2009 acoustic tour had raised more than $10,000 for Dear Jack.
“Andrew showed he was stronger than any of us and has never wavered in his commitment,” says his father, Brian McMahon. “I’m extremely proud of what he’s done with the Dear Jack Foundation, fighting leukemia and fighting for leukemia research; it’s a mission for the rest of his life.”
* * *
With his father in tow, McMahon shows up at the Viper Room’s downstairs bar for a last-minute show he had booked to prep for a Jack’s Mannequin tour, kicking off Feb. 5 in Seattle. “Welcome to band practice,” McMahon tells the giddy crowd shortly after taking the stage. His parents, wife and Warner Bros. rep are in attendance, as are diehard fans who managed to purchase tickets for the sold-out show announced via the band’s MySpace site that morning. At the door, people drop names in an effort to gain entrance.
Guitarist Bobby Anderson grapples with a malfunctioning amp throughout the beginning of the show, affording McMahon a chance to deviate from the set list and debut a new song that he performs solo on piano. “Hanging out on Laguna Beach this summer, this was the first song I wrote,” he says of “Ten Days Gone.”
Returning to the set list, the four-piece elate fans with “The Lights and the Buzz.” “We’ve never played this live,” McMahon says of the iTunes single, which was the first song he wrote after his stem-cell transplant. His sonorous voice teems with a sense of optimism.
The group also perform “Diane, the Skyscraper” in concert for the first time and a killer rendition of U2’s “New Year’s Day.” Highlights from their latest album, 2008’s The Glass Passenger, include “Miss California” and “Hammers and Strings (A Lullaby),” the latter a touching ode to the piano dating back to McMahon’s Something Corporate days, although no songs by that band are performed this evening. They close the approximately 90-minute set by leading the audience through a jubilant sing-along of Everything In Transit’s “La La Lie.”
Anderson joined Something Corporate as a touring member shortly before the band went on hiatus, and he has remained with McMahon since. Partington, now a third-year law student at Chapman University, keeps his chops up by teaching guitar at the Music Factory OC; the band rehearse in Orange to accommodate his school schedule. Page, who lives in Carlsbad, has taken what he has learned from his career as a musician and installs sound systems for concert venues and nightclubs. Ireland played drums with the rock band Streamline, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before recently returning to Orange County.
“All of us are excited to do a couple of shows and get the ‘best of’ [album] out and just do one thing at a time,” Partington says. “If it looks like it works for everybody’s schedule—timing is obviously a factor—let’s do it. We’ve all thought about [a future/summer tour], but to announce it’s happening is a little premature.”
After returning from Jack’s Mannequin’s “Sing for Your Supper” tour, McMahon set up residence on Balboa Peninsula. There’s still no confirmed date for the best-of release, which will be an album of “classics” and a bonus disc featuring such popular B-sides as “Konstantine” and the two newly recorded songs. With a second Something Corporate Bamboozle date in Chicago recently added, the pressing question remains: What’s the band’s future?
“Let’s see how these two shows go before deciding if we go any further,” McMahon says, minutes before heading off for band practice with his old pals.
Something Corporate play at Bamboozle, Angel Stadium of Anaheim, 2000 E. Gene Autry Way, Anaheim, (714) 940-2070;
www.thebamboozle.com. Sun. Visit the website for performance schedule (festival runs Sat.-Sun.). Single-day ticket, $45; two-day pass, $82. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Something’s Shakin’: Dana Hills High grad Andrew McMahon on reuniting Something Corporate, battling leukemia and maintaining Jack’s Mannequin."