Andrew McMahon (Jack’s Mannequin) interview


In about a month, Andrew McMahon will release “Dear Jack,” a documentary featuring raw footage shot during his fight with Acute Lymphatic Leukemia. McMahon recently talked about seeing the footage for the first time, his struggle with getting back on stage, and possible Something Corporate reunion shows in the future. As a Leukemia survivor myself, we talked a bit about our similar treatments.

You told Paul Tao back at the end of 2007 that the footage (that would become Dear Jack) was just shot to be shot, and that it was initially hard to watch. With the release coming up in a month, are you hesitant, whatsoever, to finally surface this footage?

I have mixed feelings about it…I’m proud of it on a couple of levels. It came together from a lot of people around me, and the filmmakers who put their time in and worked on edits for a couple of years now. I think it’s a really good movie [Laughs] you know, I mean, it’s a little bit easier to be objective with some time behind me – these guys have just done a really amazing job telling the story. I feel like a part of me is a pretty private person. I say a lot in my songs, and I’ve been pretty forthcoming since the experience and being in the hospital, but I still consider myself as a pretty private guy. I think that [the DVD] really shows how I live, or how I lived, and how I got through this in such a personal way – really just my personal home movies. Yeah, there’s a part of me that gets nervous putting that much of myself out there. I try and hold true to the tenants of why we started the private movie in the first place. One, to show people the reality and, I think, the truth of what it’s like to be in that situation from a very personal angle, and also the idea that it would instill some hope in people, that there is something positive and wonderful on the other side, that if you keep your head in it and do everything to get yourself better.

When was the first time you sat down and plugged the camera in and watched the footage? Looking back at the footage on Dear Jack, was it hard?

The first time I saw…well…we saw an initial, very rough edit, you know, that’s just catalog footage essentially. It was sort of scatterbrained enough that I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe I shot that,” but it hadn’t really been woven together in a story at that point. The first time I really saw it, I can’t even pinpoint the date, but I want to say it was sometime in early 2007, I remember we went to [director] Corey Moss’ house…a bunch of us went over there and watched it at his house. It wasn’t finished…I remember sitting there and watching it, and it was pretty intense, and it sort of put me in a pretty strange head space. It was kind of the first time seeing all the stuff pieced together…I shot most of the footage myself, and so much of it was my perspective. I remember I woke up the following morning sick [Laughs], well not actually sick, but in a psychosomatic kind of way. My body felt like it was back in that time and place, and it sort of spoke of the power of the footage, just seeing things through my own eyes again really kind of put me back there.That said, a couple years have passed. Now I see it and appreciate it for how well it was put together and what it represents.

Have you watched it with family, and if so, what was their reaction?

My wife has seen it, and at this point, that is it. The last week that we were editing and putting together the last cuts. I’ve been pretty guarded about not showing this to anybody until it’s finished. They’re having a lot of edits, and they’re having a lot of different versions come out, timing the one we’re really happy with it. So I think in the next week or so I will distribute it out to my family and some of my close friends for them to see.

How did Tommy Lee get picked to narrate the movie?

There’s a lot of reasons. When we went and looked back at a lot of the footage…to be clear, the way this whole thing happened, it spun out, [was that] we got a camera during the making of the [Everything in] Transit sessions. Six months before, when we looked back at a lot of the footage, we were working a lot at the time, both on his record and on mine, he was in a lot of the footage. [Laughs] He was sort of a big part of that period of time in my life. In some ways I think he represented a symbol of that period of time. I was going out with him fairly regularly, I was spending a lot of time in the studio with him, and I was just partying and having an amazing time. That was sort of the backdrop for when I got pulled off the road all of a sudden. We saw him in a lot of the footage, and we knew we needed a narrator, and it was kind of like, “Do we go hunting down a guy to do voice over work?” or, you know, we got a buddy that happens to be a big celebrity who actually was really involved and really a part of this period of time in our lives and also happens to have a very cool, recognizable voice. So it was like, Tommy Lee is like our Morgan Freeman. He’s the dude who will hopefully bring a little bit of celebrity in the story – maybe perks up a couple of people’s ears who don’t necessarily know what we’re about, but checks us out because Tommy is involved – you know, he’s a good friend.

I’m a Leukemia survivor as well, but with my condition, I had ALA Leukemia, essentially spawning defective white blood cells, but you had a strand called Acute Lymphoblasic Leukemia, or ALL. Medical jargon aside, can you explain what was going on with your body?

Effectively, my body was taken over by cancer cells that were, to my understanding, I had defective bone marrow. Your bone marrow is where you process a lot of cells and shoots those cells out to the body. What happened to me, or how it lays out on paper, if you were to look at a score of my blood counts, from hemoglobin to – sorry to get technical, but all the different components of blood – everything was being processed through a cancerous organism apparently. All of my blood counts were going down to nothing…Every component of my blood was effected because all the cancer cells completely destroyed all the blood in my body. The treatment that I had with Leukemia is to essentially kill all the cancerous blood cells so you can generate new ones, but because it’s in the bone marrow, you have to fix the problem at the source…so that’s why we chose to do the transplant.

I had a transplant as well, and several spinal taps too. I take it you went through the same radiation?

When I started the [the treatment of possible prolonged chemotherapy to eventually get into remission], what ended up happening is that I that I had a match, and my doctor felt my odds for survival would be better should I be able to get through the process of the transplant, so we went for that. The preparation for that is pretty huge amounts of radiation, brain radiation, body radiation for several days, and I did really heavy, high doses of chemotherapy that just kills everything in your body, and then sort of brings you back to life. You know, you’ve been through it. I got that really specialized ass kicking from the docs, because that’s what you have to do to prepare for the transplant.

Was there any point in that time where you felt like, “Why did this happen to me?” or “How could this have happened?” or was it always a positive uphill battle with yourself and your friends and family?

Definitely. There were definitely moments when you have questions. I think i was able to make peace with it quickly. I don’t know if the “Why me?” thing really came into play during my illness as much as “Why do I hurt so bad?” [Laughs] And I mean, I think there was a part of me that felt upset that I couldn’t be out, and I got plucked, if felt like, at a certain important time in my life. There was a point that, even really more after the fact, and after the recovery. During it, there was sort of this, bizarre coincidence. So many things happened at the period of time that I found out I was sick, that I seemed to weave this whole picture together. I looked back at [Everything in Transit], I think I was living, at that period of time in my life, in a very serendipitous kind of way. There were so many things were just coming together for me and the world was just working, and I was listening to the universe, I was just trying to follow the path that would lead me to the best music, but you know I felt so tied in and keyed into the universe, that when I got sick, in a strange way, that’s just what was supposed to happen. Listening back to the album, and hearing all those references to hospitals and being sick, I think there was a lot of serendipity in a way that I found out I was sick. You almost felt like it was meant to happen. Something about it felt like, “I’m the guy for this,” like it was just meant to happen – not something out of anger, like I was meant to be punished – but something about it felt like, “I’m the guy for this, this is what I have to deal with now.” So I did, and I dealt with it peacefully. You have these moments where you feel worried you’re going to die, then you really get scared. Those moments are hard to be consoled, even if you are treating yourself in a positive way.

Looking back on those years, I know it’s cliche, but do you feel stronger because of it? Did it give you a fresh look on life that carried over into your song writing?

It’s not to say that I don’t feel like a stronger person. I feel as my life continues on, this will have made me stronger inherently. The couple years following my recovery, I felt anything but strong, I think I felt really fragile, kind of like I was drifting a little bit, even into the making of [The Glass] Passenger. [That album] really came about the struggle to find my confidence as a musician again. The struggle to find my confidence as a writer and as an artist. I think the cancer stripped a lot of that away from me. I think the follow-up to this, [besides] my struggle with Leukemia, is my struggle to get back to that place where I felt like I was working with the world around me, making songs. I finally feel like I’m there. I think making Passenger and getting this documentary done and doing all these things are really an influential stepping stone in getting back to this place where I can put all this shit behind me and move along. I think I’m finally at that place…I think it took a lot away from me in some respects. I think all the things I’ve replaced are better, stronger parts and are slowly coming back. Most of my “Why me?” and most of my anger about being sick happened in the years following [my remission].

How has The Dear Jack Foundation been going? What’s been the feedback?

It’s been great. We’ve been able to fund a lot of big research…We’ve raised about $200,000 if not more than that at this point, going towards various research projects. Medical research is a tricky thing. We’re not going to be able to sit there and quantify every sucess. In general, having your money go towards these doctors that are spending day in and day out to get to the bottom of things, you might fund research that didn’t work, and that’s a part of what they found out. This doesn’t work, then you go on to the next one. Our goal is to continue to fund that research, and help supporting doctors, so they can find cures. It’s been a great success. I feel it has really roused a lot of people together in a name of a great cause. We’re a little foundation. We don’t generate millions of dollars, but you know, we’ve made a few hundred thousand dollars in the course of a few years, and I feel really proud to do my part.

Going out on tour for the first time after the recovery, what was your initial feeling? How long did it take for someone who went through the same thing to come up to you, and what was your response? Was it overwhelming?

The first time I talked to another person, a fan, it was probably a few months following the transplant. I started to feel better enough to do these kind of “incubated” shows, kind of acoustic, kind of things to give me hope, give me something to train for, get my body back, get my health back, kind of working with the transplant to feel better. That’s when I started to see people reaching out. It’s intense. It’s sort of a weird responsibility to council somebody who is sick, or is in a dangerous spot in their own life. I think that’s something where there’s a feeling to look after other people who don’t feel well after you’ve gone through something like that. You sort of are happy to step in and say, “Well, this worked for me, and try to stay positive,” and I sort of think that’s the natural response to recovery is to reach out to those who are in the process themselves. So it happened pretty early. Playing those initial shows, there were mix feelings. A lot of it came with nerves, because you were wondering if you would get sick before you do the show, or if my voice would hold – those kinds of things. I think if I’d recover, my performance would recover too. I didn’t think I’d come out swinging, jumping on the piano [Laughs] and waving my body for the first several months down the road, but you can certainly chart my progress physically through my shows in a lot of respects. You would probably see my shows getting a lot more active as I recovered.

If there’s one thing you specifically learned from your experience, that you would want to pass down onto all your fans, what would it be?

Not to say I am any sort of authority. A lot of people have idealized my situation, because I play music and am somewhat of a public figure. If I could say anything, if I’ve learned anything from it – you never know what’s coming for you. I don’t say that to instill any sort of paranoia, but the point being, you don’t’ know that you might not wake up tomorrow, and it’s you or your friend, or some other possible road block that you might not know happen. You try and make sure that your day to day that you’re living, not to that you are prepared for something like that, but you’re living in a way that would make you okay with it. That could mean a lot of different things to a lot of people. For me, it’s as simple as trying to live a life as a kind person, and doing things that I’m proud of, and looking after the people that I love in my life, and being as connected to the things and people that hold you in and are special to me. Trying to live a life that you’re psyched on. Know that it’s not always going to be around, so you might as well enjoy yourself. That you might as well be in a place where you reconcile enough that you can enjoy life a little, because none of us know what’s happening next. Just live in the moment, that’s all I can say. Try to be present in the moment, because the past and the future really don’t exist.

Oh yeah, and I’m sure people are wondering, any new Something Corporate news, or do some of us just need to move on?

[Laughs] I think everyone should move on with their lives, because we shouldn’t get hung up on a rock band. [Laughs] The only way to answer that question is to be as cautious as possible, because I’ve definitely gotten myself in trouble both in Something Corporate world and Jack’s Mannequin world by thinking I know what’s coming next. It almost speaks in some way to the last question you asked me, which is the past and the future don’t exist. I don’t know what my tomorrow is going to bring. At the moment, in my head, I think it’s a realistic possibility that we will go out and play some shows. When I say some, I doubt it will be a full scale tour. In the interest of living my life in the moment, I have to be open to just writing new songs, and being around a lot of what inspires me artistically. That said, the Something Corporate guys are my close, close friends. We still have maintained a very close friendship even though we’ve moved on with other things in our lives. I think, because we have moved on to other things in our lives, the idea of getting together and getting on a stage and playing music does not seem far fetched to us. I will not anticipate that anything that happens, whether we play a few shows or whatever, is going to indicate us making new music. If I could suggest moving on from that head space, I would move on. If people want to see Something Corporate and check out a few shows, I think it is highly possible. I can’t say when, because it’s not on the books. There are discussions, but they’re not on the books. I’m just going to have to wait until the dates show up to talk about it. So bare with me. [Laughs]


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