Don’t Panic: The surprising rebirth of Motion City Soundtrack

photo: Andrew Wells

There comes a point in every band’s career where you want to be anywhere but in Indianapolis. That’s not meant to be a diss on the Circle City; it’s just that, like many other moderately sized cities across America, it’s considered a B market—a place that booking agents route tours that have already played all of the major markets in America, or when there are no other options left for your band. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it typically means that you’ve been on the road for far too long when you’re in Indianapolis.

Right now, Motion City Soundtrack is definitely in Indianapolis. The Minneapolis-based pop-rock quintet has been on the road for much of 2015, having massive touring success with a 10th anniversary trek celebrating their sophomore album Commit This To Memory, first through North America in January and February, then to Europe and the U.K. in May, then back through America in July and August. Add in a handful of Warped Tour dates in June (including the “Road To Warped” show in far-off Alaska), and MCS has visited 66 percent of the country by the time they roll into Indianapolis in early August for the final day of the CTTM tour in the U.S. (the Australian leg of the Commit This To Memory tour will begin shortly after this gig is in the books). So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the band is, to put it politely, dragging serious ass.

“We’ve been joking that this tour is actually The Sixth Sense and that I’m actually dead,” remarks bassist Matt Taylor, swatting away a fly, as the band commandeers a large table inside a local Starbucks down the street from the band’s tour bus, which is parked outside the night’s venue, Deluxe (a small room inside the much larger Old National Centre complex). All five members of Motion City Soundtrack—Taylor, frontman Justin Pierre, guitarist Josh Cain, keyboardist Jesse Johnson and new drummer Claudio Rivera—are decked out in various shades of black, consuming various combinations of caffeine and sugar in order to shake off the cobwebs from the previous night. It’s already past 1 p.m., and it is clearly the last day of tour.

“We wanted to put the record out earlier [this year] and then I went out and had a baby,” Pierre, a new father, cracks. “So it was kind of like, ‘Let’s do this,’ which was the Commit This To Memory anniversary tour. At first it was kind of chaotic trying to figure out what we were going to do for the next few months, but it’s been a lot of fun.”

That new album, Panic Stations, has actually been done for quite some time—the band recorded it with producer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, the Hold Steady) over a two-week span in the summer of 2014, more than a year before its eventual mid-September 2015 release date on Epitaph Records. But its genesis dates back even further—specifically to March 2013, when the band’s drummer of 11 years, Tony Thaxton, turned in his resignation.

“My first knee-jerk reaction was once Tony left, I was like, ‘We have to write an album immediately and put it out,’” remembers Cain. “We started writing immediately and it was fun, but then it slowed way down.”

“At one point we were going to try and record at the end of 2013 and that didn’t work out, and then we were trying to record at the beginning of 2014 and that didn’t work out, and then someone said, ‘You should write more songs,’” Pierre recalls.

The band scrapped a set of pre-production demos they had laid down with Mike Sapone (Brand New, Taking Back Sunday) and went back to the drawing board, including a trip to Los Angeles where band members stayed with Epitaph head honcho Brett Gurewitz to woodshed songs. (“‘Over It Now’ was written at his house,” says Pierre.) This resulted in the quietest year of the band’s existence—Motion City played a scant eight shows in 2014.

“It was not the brightest business decision,” Cain says.

“It was not the best personal decision for me, either,” confesses Taylor.

For a band with the word “motion” in their name—whose incessant touring schedule was a big part of why Thaxton departed the band—2014 was a strange year for MCS: The members became stationary for the first time in a long time. Each man dealt with the unexpected downtime differently; Johnson even got a bartending gig at a friend’s restaurant in Brooklyn just to keep himself busy.

“It came out of me losing my mind having nothing to do,” the 38-year-old synth op says. “All my friends had jobs, and when they got off work they wanted to hang with their girlfriend or boyfriend, so I was spending eight hours a day talking to my cat.” (Johnson has since moved to LA and has no problem telling anyone who will listen how much he hated Brooklyn, where he spent much of the past decade.)

It’s no exaggeration to say that taking a year away from the touring grind can effectively kill a band’s career, something of which Cain is entirely too cognizant.

“Our biggest thing we fight is that people don’t even know we’re still a band, which blows my mind,” the 39-year-old guitarist begins. “The age of information has changed so much that now we live in this noise-ridden digital information time. There’s no central place. And even if you go somewhere to get that information, it’s not necessarily coming to you. I’m not complaining about it, because it’s cool—I love all the chaos we have. [But recently] Matt was at a bar drinking a beer and overheard a waitress saying she didn’t know we still existed. Something like, ‘They’re still a band?’”

“She said it to the person next to me,” Taylor recalls. “She had no idea who I was. I was like a fly on the wall.”

“We’re normal guys,” says Johnson. “We’re not doing a lot of things that create news on the internet. There’s all these bands that have these things happening, where someone said this or that, or they’re feuding with this band. We just try to treat everybody equally and be nice to people.”

So what’s the solution to have continued relevancy?

“We need to be dickheads!” says Cain with a laugh.

“Our last resort is calling out Drake,” Taylor deadpans.

Given that Motion City’s year of dormancy was partially borne out of Thaxton leaving, did anyone in the band see it coming—and more importantly, could it have been prevented?

“Oh, we all knew. It was obvious,” Cain says.

“Had it been a surprise, out-of-nowhere phone call, I would’ve been devastated,” admits Taylor. “But I shared a hotel room with him for two years prior. I just knew it was coming. He never said, ‘Eh, I’m outta here,’ but he’s my best friend. I could see he wasn’t happy.”

While no member was happy to see Thaxton go, it affected Taylor the most. The two grew up together in Richmond, Virginia, playing in bands together since they were teenagers; when Thaxton joined Motion City in early 2002, Taylor wasn’t far behind, being invited into the fold a few months later. When Thaxton made his decision to leave the band, the only person he called was Taylor. Given the pair’s history, did Taylor try to talk him out of it?

“He was at his breaking point and was very upset,” the 36-year-old bassist recalls. “And I was like, ‘This is what you need.’ It was like a relationship. If the two people in the relationship aren’t happy with themselves, they shouldn’t be together. Same concept.”

“He and I both went through our own things and treated each other terribly because we didn’t understand what the other person was going through,” admits Pierre. “I thought he was just an asshole, but I didn’t realize he was going through some serious shit, but he also didn’t open up about it. Back in the day when I was drunk all the time, our roles were kind of reversed.”

“I think it gave us a little gift to allow us to see where our darkness was as people in this situation, like how we were interacting as a band, and maybe allow us to relieve our stress with each other,” Cain concludes. “Like, ‘Oh, if he’s having such a bad time, maybe it’s okay for me to talk about if I’m having a bad time.’ You’ve got dudes in a band—dudes aren’t the best. We don’t talk about our feelings very much. I think we openly talked a lot more at that point about what was going on.”

Any chance of lingering animosity between Thaxton and MCS was extinguished earlier this year when he joined the band onstage to play “My Favorite Accident” at the Anaheim, California, stop of the Commit This To Memory tour. He currently lives in LA where he hosts a Christmas-themed podcast, Feliz Navipod, and plays drums in a band called the Pride Of Erie PA, among other ventures.

Tony Thaxton’s departure wasn’t the first hurdle Motion City Soundtrack has had to overcome in their 18-year existence, though. While much has been written about Justin Pierre’s battle with drugs and alcohol in the past decade, one could argue that a bigger problem he and his bandmates have had to overcome is solving how to transition their passion into their career without losing either.

“When we started playing music, it’s because it’s what we loved to do and what we knew how to do—we didn’t really excel at anything else,” Pierre says. “At some point, it became the job we did for a living.”

“That was really a hard change for me, because it became about data and information,” says Cain. “The Even If It Kills Me days were all about numbers and trajectory instead of the creative process. As the band got big, we weren’t ready to be that band. Justin was not ready to be the lead singer of a band, be the guy who all the attention is focused on. I don’t think we were as ready as people as we are now. I think Justin has now finally become the ‘lead singer guy’ in a good way.”

“Over time, I detached from myself in a weird way, going through my own shit and getting sober,” Pierre elaborates. “Then I was high on being sober. Then I fell into a weird depression, but then I got out of that around 2012 [when I took over the band’s social media accounts]. I started hearing stories about how our music has helped people. It was overwhelming in a good way that through whatever we’re doing, without even thinking about it, we’ve helped people with our music. It was mind-blowing.” (Pierre says he now spends roughly four hours a day replying to fans online.)

Though they’ve been a band in some form since 1997, most people’s familiarity with Motion City Soundtrack starts with 2005’s Mark Hoppus-produced Commit This To Memory, still their highest-selling album, and the surrounding tours with platinum-selling artists like Blink-182, Fall Out Boy and the All-American Rejects. However, all three of those groups took considerable amounts of time off in the past decade, whereas MCS never quite achieved the level of commercial success to be able to afford to do so. Still, one reason Motion City Soundtrack continues to retain relevancy is their well-attended live shows, thanks to the band’s most popular work being considered by fans as “honest music,” instead of manufactured and focus-grouped for maximum popularity. This severely limits the amount of bands Motion City can look up to, as the glass ceiling sent many of their one-time contemporaries tumbling back down to the ground. How do you keep that level of honesty in your music when phoning it in just seems easier?

“There’s not a lot of bands who have done what we’ve been doing. We’re in a weird class,” says Cain. “We’re in that ‘played Warped Tour the most times’ era where it’s us and a handful of bands. But I feel like there’s a resurgence of what we really were is happening now. I feel we can stay relevant in the fact that we are still doing that thing we are a part of: dirty, fast, happy, emotional rock songs are coming back as a thing, and we’ve just been here doing it.”

“I feel like MCS could play with Sorority Noise or the Menzingers or the Front Bottoms,” says Johnson. “It’s really cool seeing these newer bands, and in a way seeing how we felt: They’re writing honest music and they’re having a good time doing it and they’re excited about what they’re doing. That is something we have tried to maintain the entire time.”

That honesty is borne out of Pierre’s willingness to be true to himself over anything else. “All I ever wanted to do was be like Superchunk or Fugazi or Pavement—the bands I liked as a kid,” the 39-year-old frontman says. “Those are still my favorite bands. I strive to be that awesome and I fail miserably. But that’s always been the goal: to write cool shit. The songs I like listening to is the type of music I’m trying to write. Contemporaries—I don’t even know what that is.”

The band seems comfortable in the fact that they will likely never have a gold or platinum record on the wall, but that doesn’t mean Panic Stations is their final missive. “We’re not done yet,” Cain confidently states. “I think we got more music in us. There’s always a chance [at commercial success]. We may just make that song happen randomly. We’re deep in our career, but you never know. Look at fun., look at Nate [Ruess]: He was making music forever, and then [“We Are Young”] happened. It’s awesome, and it gives hope.”

Pierre reminds everyone gathered at the table that the Flaming Lips’ breakthrough hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” was on that band’s sixth album, further pushing Cain’s point that it could happen to anyone, any time. He fails to mention, however, that Panic Stations is Motion City Soundtrack’s sixth album.

The band heads back to the venue for soundcheck, the sound of thumping drums and wobbly bass echoing off the basement venue’s ornate walls and ceiling. In a few hours, the 500-capacity room will be nearly full, with hundreds of MCS fans either re-living their teenage memories or creating some new ones, but now, the room sits in half-darkness as the band works out the kinks to a cover of Nirvana’s “Breed,” which they will close their encore with later that night in an end-of-tour jam alongside members of opening acts the Spill Canvas and Sorority Noise. It’s at this moment when an onlooker can see what makes Motion City Soundtrack special: They run through “Breed” over and over, pausing to work out guitar solos and get the chorus lyrics in the right order. Many bands would just run through a show-closing, one-time-only cover once and hope for the best, but not Motion City: These guys are professionals. Whether they’re playing a festival in front of 10,000 people or playing in a small room to a few hundred fans at the conclusion of roughly a half-year of touring, Motion City Soundtrack always gives it their all, even if people would understand if they didn’t.

Later in the afternoon, the band hosts a VIP meet-and-greet for those who paid an additional fee. In other markets earlier in the tour, this has resulted in dozens of fans eager to get closer to one of their favorite bands; in Indianapolis, 13 people show up. But those 13 people are pumped to sing along with MCS as they perform acoustic renditions of “Everything Is Alright” and “L.G. FUAD,” then chat each member up as they sign autographs and pose for photos. These VIP packages are a relatively new thing for the band, even though it’s already old hat for many current Warped Tour headliners who have figured out how to get every possible dollar from their fanbase before they age out of caring about pop-screamo. It’s not entirely clear if Motion City is comfortable with this, but it’s the way the industry is going, so they’re not left with much of a choice.

“The musical climate changes every freakin’ month,” laments Johnson. “We started at a time where people bought records. We’ve always tried to just figure it out. That’s part of the job of being a musician. You just have to figure it out.”

Their meet-and-greet obligations completed, Pierre, Cain and Rivera head off to find dinner together—all three have been on some form of low-carb diet for the past few years, with outstanding results—eventually settling on a local burger joint called Punch Burger. Gigantic hamburgers are ordered (some over one pound in weight) and the conversation turns to Pierre’s struggle with depression, a topic he explores on Panic Stations’ “It’s A Pleasure To Meet You.”

“The bridge [to ‘It’s A Pleasure To Meet You’] kind of scared me when I wrote it,” the singer admits. “I used to drive around late at night and listen to music and drinking soda and taking ephedrine. I would stay up for days on end, meeting people and having conversations with them. Our first couple albums, I was in whatever I was talking about, but as I’ve drawn my life together, I can write about things I did when I was younger with having the vantage point of distance, which I think a more accurate way of observing what went down. The idea is just to be able to look at yourself 10 years down the road and say, ‘Oh, it’s nice to meet this person who I always assumed was there, just buried beneath an eating disorder or alcoholism.’ Time is the key factor, having to hack away all those layers.

“I think a lot people think there is a cure for things, that there is a be all, end all magic wand that can be waved,” he continues. “And in my experience, that isn’t the case. It’s a slow, trudging through whatever to get better. And in the end, the difference between where I was 10 years ago and where I am now is that I don’t have all the excess baggage holding me under. Now I can tackle life’s simple problems or hardships with absolute clarity. It’s still a struggle. It’s always a fuckin’ struggle. But it’s a lot easier now than if I was that person from 10 years ago.”

A lot of Pierre’s depression issues have gone hand in hand with his ongoing quest for sobriety. In 2007, he spent time in Fairview, a facility in Minneapolis he describes as a “prison of rehab centers,” after consulting with Brett Gurewitz—himself a recovering addict. “I needed to go to the place that scared me,” Pierre admits. “That was the first decision I made against the easy way out. I took the hard way out. And it was the best thing. From that point on, I started making hard decisions that were not fun and not easy.”

Throughout the next three years, Pierre would commit to sobriety for six to nine months at a time, typically relapsing by drinking a six-pack of beer in one sitting. “Then I’d feel like shit the next day and be sober for six more months,” he says. His final relapse—Jan. 2, 2010, just a few weeks before the release of My Dinosaur Life—ended in him dumping the majority of the six-pack down the drain. This date is etched—some might say committed—to Pierre’s memory as a new beginning.

As the trio finishes their meals and begins the walk back to the venue, Pierre remarks, “I’m 100 percent happy compared to where I was, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write very sad, depressing songs. It’s not like one day I was magically cured. I want to be cured and I want to be sober and I want everything to be fucking great now. And it’s not like that. It takes a lot of time and energy to get better.”

“If you want to get up off the floor, you have to teach yourself how to get up off the floor,” Cain offers.

“That may take several years to do,” Pierre responds. “If there is anything I see in the words and stories on this album, I’ve gotten better at getting up off the floor quicker than I used to. But I’ve been working at it.”

While Justin Pierre’s sobriety has played a huge role in Motion City Soundtrack’s new focus, another big contribution was the addition of Claudio Rivera, former drummer of Saves The Day. (Full disclosure: Many years ago, I ran a record label which released an album by Rivera’s old band, Somerset.) Rivera had spent numerous years serving as Tony Thaxton’s drum tech, so when the throne opened up, he was the logical choice. Living in Minneapolis allowed for Rivera to get together more frequently with Pierre and Cain for jam sessions, helping generate momentum and motivation at times when there was little of either.

Rivera is especially popular on social media, having more than twice as many Twitter followers as every other member of MCS minus Pierre, though it’s not because of his musical affiliations—the bushy-haired drummer is incredibly outspoken about politics and social justice, frequently pushing progressive issues in a way that could be described as occasionally scorched-earth in nature. (His Facebook debates with Bayside frontman Anthony Raneri are the stuff of legend.) Coming into an established band like Motion City Soundtrack, who has remained about as publicly neutral on significant political issues as possible, was Rivera planning on toning down his rhetoric?

“I never try to speak for the band, but personally, I feel it’s our duty to tell the people who wouldn’t normally know about issues about what’s going on,” he says. “There’s a concept of trying to stay neutral, and Desmond Tutu said, ‘If you’re neutral in the face of oppression, you’ve sided with the oppressors.’ I agree with that. That rocks the boat a little bit, and when the boat is sailing comfortably with a mortgage and a happy life and everything, it’s really hard to rock that boat.”

“It’s not that the band has a neutral view, it’s just not—we have plenty of other vehicles for those things,” Cain responds, as the trio stands outside their tour bus in the hot sun. “Our band’s music isn’t one of those vehicles, nor is our public social media for that. I mean, I’ll tell the world who I’m voting for, on a personal level. And I’ll put my views on Facebook—my personal Facebook. That’s where it ends.”

“That reminds me of the Dixie Chicks documentary,” Rivera counters. “Dixie Chicks weren’t a political band, they don’t write political songs, but they themselves were outspoken and they got criticized for it. Would people criticize us for being outspoken?”

“Yeah, very much so, yes,” Cain says, exasperated. “It’s not that I’m a stand-on-the-sidelines kind of guy, not at all. [But] we’re not Fugazi. That’s not our band. It feels a little disingenuous to get onstage and be anti-government—we’re not that band. ‘Let’s get fucked up and die, yeah! This song’s about spaceships!’”

“I do try to keep things to what I care about and know about, and that’s feelings,” Pierre chimes in. “I think if everybody treats each other with mutual respect, in spite of your age, race, sex, income, whatever it is—just fucking be kind to one another.”

As the last of the Spill Canvas’ gear is cleared from the small stage and Motion City Soundtrack’s instruments are checked one last time, the PA pumps out classic songs from the early 2000s by Jimmy Eat World, Fall Out Boy and others, serving as a subliminal time machine to get everyone in the mood for a nostalgia-driven set from the evening’s headliner. Right in the middle of the Monsters Of Emo playlist, however, three unfamiliar songs are pumped out in quick succession, though with the chatter among the crowd at a consistently dull roar, it’s tough to tell if anyone realizes they’re hearing three tracks off Panic Stations more than six weeks before its release—then, it’s back to the sonic comfort food of what was essentially the Warped Tour’s mainstage ca. 2005.

It wasn’t done intentionally, but Panic Stations could probably serve as an unofficial sequel to Commit This To Memory. If CTTM is Pierre documenting his struggle with addiction as it happened, Panic Stations is the older, wiser Pierre reflecting on his troubles and slowly working to correct them. Musically, the album draws from all facets of MCS’s catalog; Johnson and Rivera’s favorite song is “Heavy Boots” (“It’s fast and punky, and I’m a fast, punky guy,” the 34-year-old drummer says with a smirk); Taylor loves “I Can Feel You,” comparing it to Commit This To Memory’s “Make Out Kids” and labeling it “quirky and fun”; Cain leans toward “Gravity,” commenting on how cool he finds the choruses; and Pierre earmarks “It’s A Pleasure To Meet You” as his top track. The album sounds exciting without feeling cloying, mature without losing its youthfulness. It could be every Motion City Soundtrack fan’s new favorite album—the trick is getting them to listen to it.

As stage time draws near, the members of Motion City Soundtrack gather backstage to limber up and discuss some last-minute setlist changes. The crowd gets antsy, starting a soccer-style chant of “Mo-tion Ci-ty!” followed by five claps that echoes throughout the backstage tunnels. I turn to Josh Cain and remark, “See? You’re still popular.”

“No,” he counters. “We’re relevant.” S

A version of this piece was published in Substream #48.