Even though he's playing a sold-out show in Central Park in 24 hours, Andrew McMahon doesn't look like a rock star. At a divey bar in North Brooklyn wearing beat-up jeans and tattoo sleeves, he passes easily as a regular — not an 18-year veteran singer-songwriter with two bands, seven albums, and thousands of performances around the world under his belt.
The 31-year-old frontman of cult favorite pop-punk bands Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin has never had a radio hit or broken through as a household name. But now, nearly two decades into his career, he's making a play to change all that.
Formerly the pretend boyfriend to a generation of high school girls too cool for Dashboard Confessional but too mainstream for Hawthorne Heights, these days McMahon is going solo with a new act called Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. Instead of writing unrequited love songs about finding his punk-rock princess, he's singing about getting older and looking back.
Something Corporate formed in California in 1998, when McMahon was just 16. "I was 9 when I started writing music. I was 10 when I did my first demo. I was never a cool kid by any stretch of the imagination," he said before pausing to order a veggie burger. "Then I did my first Battle of the Bands my sophomore year, and I became the guy in the band."
He's been that guy ever since. After two years of playing gigs around Orange County, the band released a demo, Ready… Break, that landed them a deal with Universal imprint Drive-Thru Records. "My mom really wanted me to go to college and I said, 'I'm not going to college.' So she told me she'd give me one year. We got signed almost exactly a year to the date of my high school graduation."
The band had a successful run, releasing three albums in three years. The third, North, sold 330,000 copies in the United States, but after its release in 2003, the band took a much-needed breather. Having written a bunch of personal songs with a sound too poppy for Something Corporate, McMahon poured his energy into Jack's Mannequin, a side project he intended to keep solo. But the songs quickly drew a fan base of their own. McMahon added three of his buddies to the Jack's Mannequin band and hit the road, leaving Something Corporate on a permanent hiatus. He poured his own money into the recording of a debut album.
Then, while putting the finishing touches on the record, McMahon was diagnosed with leukemia. He was 22. He made a fast and full recovery, at least physically.
"I got quote-unquote better, and I was physically healthy," he said. "But it led to this purgatory. I was unsure of life and unsure of the decisions I was making. After I came up against this life or death question, it made every other question so confusing. I think of 2006 to 2011 as this really blurry time. And I did a lot in that time! I managed to put out two records. But I was in a fog."
McMahon married his longtime girlfriend in 2006 and Jack's Mannequin stayed together through 2011 — landing song placements in angsty teen dramas like The Hills along the way — but because of changes in leadership at Warner Music, their final album was recorded three different times, an experience that made Andrew retreat not only from major labels, but his band in general.
"The release of the last Jack's record was a really tough moment for me. It was the first time that the business of making music and all the things that go along with it had started to make me a little cynical," he said. "I sat down and I thought, I need to find a different way to do this."
For the first time in years, he took a step back from the music industry. "I started focusing on all the things I'd been ignoring, like my marriage, my mental health, and my confidence, which is something that had been hit hard, and my crazy post traumatic stress disorder from my cancer that I never addressed."
But it wasn't long until he was pulled back in. Though McMahon took a break from writing music for himself, he was approached to write for the musical TV drama Smash, a gig that ended up earning him an Emmy nomination. With his faith restored, he sought new management and decided he was ready to go back into the studio.
"Over the last 14 years I have lived many lives," McMahon wrote on Twitter in July, in a note attached to "Cecilia and the Satellite," a soaring pop ballad inspired by the anticipation leading up to the birth of his first daughter. Released quietly, the radio-friendly single followed a 2013 EP that McMahon says he recorded to show that he was excited about making music again.
Much of McMahon's upcoming album, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, was written in the summer of 2013 at a Topanga Canyon cabin with no running water where he stayed alone. "I would work 10 hours a day just sitting at my piano," he said. On weekends, he traveled home to be with his wife, who had just found out she was pregnant. This experience inspired "See Her on the Weekend," a long-distance love song with lyrics about his girl being back home with morning sickness and biding time until Friday rolls around. All told, McMahon's two-month stint in the wilderness was the longest break from touring that he'd ever taken in his career, including his 2005 battle with cancer.
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, to be released in October, is his first record without major label backing. "It's sort of about me being away from the big label system and being out of a band, and trying to find my way back," he explains. A lot has changed in the 10-plus years he's been in the industry. These days, it can be less important to have the backing of a record label than a loyal fanbase, engaged directly online.
Still, whether this album will reconnect McMahon with the audience he found in his twenties or find him a new one remains to be seen. "Cecilia and the Satellite,' out for more than a month now, has yet to chart, though it has been streamed more than 260,000 times on Spotify. But McMahon is quick to reveal his mainstream aspirations.
"I still want to win. With every record I've ever made, I've shot for radio," he said. "It's not that I want fame. I want to write music and I want to have the most people humanly possible hear it." His hope isn't without reason: The music he's making under his new moniker sounds like stuff that would fit right in on Top 40, bookended by a Maroon 5 jam and a Sam Smith ballad. It's less Something Corporate, and more Fun.
On a humid night in August, McMahon opens for Gavin DeGraw and Matt Nathanson, co-headliners whose syncs on The CW shows have translated into heavy college radio play. Rain pours on the crowd, then stops as he takes the stage. The set begins at 6 p.m., an hour when most New Yorkers are still at their desks, but the crowd is full — teen girls in strappy sundresses packed in right next to thirtysomethings in Chuck Taylors and skinny jeans. With the exception of a few still-unreleased gems, they know every word to every song.
Though he's backed by a new band, Andrew's live performance is largely the same as it was back when he was playing with Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin. There's furious headbanging and maniacal grinning and piano pounding. He ends the 30-minute set by dancing around on his keys, just like he's always done.
"You have people my age who basically grew up with these songs, and they're showing up with their kids," McMahon said, describing the audience he plays for these days. "I love that I have a fanbase that's growing up with me, but I love even more that there's people still discovering the music," he said. "If you can't even connect with a high school kid and you're putting records out, you shouldn't be doing that. Who loves music more than high school kids?"
McMahon will return to the road in October, this time with his wife and baby in tow. "I probably drink and party a lot less than I used to... But I still do! " he said. Even all grown-up, McMahon is figuring out how to balance the personal with the professional, and having a family with giving himself a break — a struggle the fans who have grown up right along with him can intimately relate to. "Right now, in this moment, I'm having more fun than I've had in a really long time."