After fronting the seminal band Motion City Soundtrack for nearly two decades, Justin Courtney Pierre recently released his first solo effort, the superb In The Drink. MEB’s Connor Feimster was able to sit down with the singer during a stop on his current tour to discuss the creation of the record, fatherhood, what the future holds and much more.
For starters, what had you been up to between saying goodbye to Motion City Soundtrack and gearing up for In The Drink? Was In The Drink always meant to happen, post-farewell tour?
It’s a combination platter. I’ve always been writing, and usually, [with] the songs that I write, I’ll send snippets or ideas to Josh [Cain] or Matt [Taylor] and that’s where they start and that’s when they’d say “oh, I like this one, let’s work on it” and the ones that they say nothing about kind of get stored away.
I think it was a combination of having some of those things laying around, plus new ideas just coming out. I usually use my voice memos on my phone to get an idea out and then I have to figure out what it was that I played, which is really bad because I don’t know technology very well.
I feel like it was just me having a lot of downtime. I’m used to not having any time, so like when I’m on tour, I’m thinking about what I need to do at home and when I’m home, I’m planning for another tour so I’m never able to just be and exist and when I did have a chance to just be and exist, I found that I was…itchy. Like I just didn’t know what to do with my time, other than hang out with my wife and my kid, that was fine.—Oh my god, “that was fine” [laughs]. I mean that was the part that I was looking forward to, and it was great, and then during the day, I had a lot of extra time on my hands.
So having no agenda is the best agenda, in a way.
Well having no agenda just meant I had too much time. I would just write and—I’ve said this in other interviews, but I’d clean the house and then I’d write and then I’d record and mow the lawn and then I’d write some more, so I just started writing and I compiled a bunch of songs and I had them.
I put out this song called “Everything That Hurts,” which I wrote for some friends of mine who were running a blog called Everyone Is Gay, and it was like an advice column for LGBTQ+ youth. They did this compilation every year called The Gayest Compilation Ever Made, and I gave them that song for that. A couple years after I’d done that, I was just like “Hey, can I just put this out myself too?” And they were just like “Yeah, it’s your fuckin’ song, dummy.” So I did, I just put it out on Bandcamp and a lot of people dug it and were wondering if there was more. So I think that acted as a seed, like “okay, people might be interested in more of that.”
So I guess to finally answer your question [laughs], it’s a little of both; the possibility was there but the actual execution wasn’t really planned to do it as fast as I did. It just sort of happened. So I have time for one more question…[laughs].
[Laughs] You actually mentioned a couple things I wanted to touch on, so firstly, in a quick, two-sentence structure, how is fatherhood?
Hoo, two sentences? I have to think about this. I have to think about my words carefully. I think… it’s terrifying and it’s an unknowable sense of joy. There’s a saying or something about walking around with your heart on the outside, and I think that’s a good example of what it’s like to be a parent. It’s like you’ve got this part of you that both is and isn’t you, and you’re in charge of taking care of it and making sure it doesn’t get hurt. And you don’t really have any control over whether it does or does not get hurt. Even now, I’m tearing up about it, but it’s like extreme happiness and extreme sorrow at the same time.
I don’t know if it’s the same with [other] people, but I just get overjoyed when I think of my daughter, but then I’m also thinking of the one day where she’s going to grow up and want nothing to do with me. And then eventually she’ll hopefully come back, but it won’t be the same. Like right now, it’s just us and we’re best friends and eventually she’s going to disappear and have her own life. That’s the hard part, and just being away from her is a little tougher than I thought it would be.
That was long.
That was necessary. One more before diving into the record: what’s the best film you’ve seen so far in 2018?
I don’t think I’ve seen a movie. Actually no, by default, I saw The Incredibles 2 with my daughter. It was her first movie, and she had not seen The Incredibles but we just, on a whim, decided to go see this. I honestly thought we’d leave immediately but she was really quiet. The only problem she had was that she would talk loudly, like “IS THAT THE BAD GUY?” and would just say these things, super cute, but we didn’t leave and she was super happy and we got to eat popcorn. It was really fun.
I’m planning on, after this tour ends, doing nothing but watching TV and catching up on stuff when I’m not cleaning the house or mowing the lawn or taking care of the kid.
You mentioned your process of sharing ideas with Josh and Matt; Josh was basically your right hand in creating In The Drink, right?
Was the process of creating this record akin to making a Motion City Soundtrack record or was it some kind of new thing altogether, in terms of process?
I think yes and no. When I’d share with them, they’d take what I had and would run with it. Matt is really good at programming drums whereas Josh can write guitar parts for the whole song and it’ll become a full song, so I think the three of us work pretty well together in terms of the ideas of songs. But then there’d be instances of the five of us entering a room together and writing together, too. So both of these things kind of happened.
But with this record, I sort of just sent Josh the finished demos; I had drums, bass, guitars, vocals, everything.
All done yourself?
Yeah. And then he would say “Yeah, these ones are good, these are the ten I want to do.” And I said “Okay, great.” So it was different in that he didn’t really get into the writing of it, but he edited a great deal. There’s a song called “I’m A Liar” that started out with really a complicated fingerpicking guitar part and I just couldn’t do it. So then I was like “Let’s just strum it” and I couldn’t even do that and he said “Okay just hit single notes, we’ll just try that.” So it was a matter of me not being able to play it well, and then he’d add to it. He was more about figuring out how the guitar tones would sound and shaping the songs that way. But no, nobody else wrote anything on this.
Other than that, I will say that David [Jarnstrom] played the drum parts about 80% how they were written by me. Some of his fills were his own, and in the song “Sooner” he took a vague idea I had—I just kept mentioning Swervedriver and he went with that. So with the example of “Sooner”, he did more than what was on the page.
Josh knew what I was going for, in that I wanted to make this kind of ‘90s, loud, feedback-laden, guitar-heavy record. The era that we grew up in, at least in the early 2000s, was drum-heavy and vocal-heavy and I wanted guitars to be the loudest thing on the record, so we kind of went back to that. If you listen to some of those ‘90s records, the drums are kind of low in the mix. Ours aren’t. It’s like a combo of that; it’s like a ‘90s record, but made today.
[Josh] also pushed me to be weird, because he knows how weird I like to be. In Motion City a lot of the time I wasn’t allowed to be as weird, so he kind of championed that and pushed for it.
Lyrically, from an outside perspective, it appears that In The Drink is more up for interpretation, whereas Motion City Soundtrack records came across as more straightforward. Was that an intentional shift in terms of songwriting?
I think with Motion City, at least the first two or three records, it was just “here’s how I’m feeling and I’m just gonna write it out, word for word, verbatim.” But I also love writing like Tom Waits and a lot of other things. I started this band [called] Farewell Continental while I was recording Even If It Kills Me; I called up Tommy [Rehbein]—who’s actually playing in this band, tonight—and I was like “I want to do something that’s super messy and sludgy and weird” because we like the same exact kinds of music.
Anyway, in 2007, we started Farewell Continental and part of it was that the lyrics—I feel like Lifter Puller was a big influence, they sort of created their own slang. The sounds of the words were almost more important than what the words meant. It could’ve been meaningless for all I cared, it was the sound of the words that I liked. There was less thought that went into it and it was more freeform, and I really liked that and used that and started putting that into Motion City, starting on My Dinosaur Life.
I know for sure that the lyrics to “Pulp Fiction”, “Disappear” and “The Weakends” were influenced by that way of writing where I have a thought or idea or a word pops out and I’m like “OH! This is good!” I wind up with this puzzle with just a few pieces in there and I’m like “what does this mean? How can I draw the lines together?” Then I come up with a story and I fill them in. So there is meaning and stories in there, but it comes from a place that’s purely instinctual in terms of where it starts.
So, to answer your question, I started shifting and started writing these ideas that could mean several different things, at least in my head. I could point them out as a relationship song, a drug song, a being-in-a-band song all in one and I would figure out how to make all three stories true at the same time. So yes, they’re up for interpretation, I definitely think so. I know what they’re about, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what they’re about.
Were any of the ten tracks on In The Drink pre-written, as either a Farewell Continental song or a Motion City Soundtrack song, or were they entirely original?
I think “Undone” might have been the earliest thing that I had, just the guitar part and the melody. “Anchor” was definitely something I had shown Josh before, but it became more of a rock song on this record. A lot of these songs were written on an acoustic guitar, so they had a country-ish twang to them and they were twice as fast. “I Don’t Know Why She Ran Away” was written very quickly in this time. “Moonbeam” was something a little older; you can barely hear the main guitar part, which is what it was written around. It was this very Pernice Brothers vibe, kind of like Limbeck, and that kind of changed and got all fucked up and weird. “Ready Player One” was something I kind of wrote one day.
Had you read the book or seen the movie?
No, and this is the thing, I’ve done this a few times. “Pulp Fiction” had nothing to do with the movie, but more so the genre of writing.
Actual pulp fiction.
Yeah, exactly. To me, I tried to create my own slang and this story of a detective going after somebody. At least, in my head, that’s what that was about. But then also about me, but anyway, people thought it was about the movie and we were like “well, why not?” Then we made t-shirts with the Pulp Fiction font. Then on the next record, I had “True Romance” and I just wanted to keep it going. I just love referencing references, so it goes on forever.
But with “Ready Player One”, I think the song was titled “I’m Ready” and it’s just a really dumb name, and I already had a song called “I’m A Liar” and didn’t want to do it again. Josh told me about the book and he told me the entire story of it and laid it out for me, so I knew what happened, and then I thought that was a good title for what one version of that song meant to me, the word “player” having a double or triple meaning. Long story short, it has nothing to do with the book or the movie. I did see the movie and I didn’t hate it. I liked the idea, but I also hadn’t read the book. If I had read the book, I probably would’ve hated the movie.
That’s usually how it goes. Anyway, the rest of the tracks?
“Sooner” was something I’d found as a guitar part in GarageBand and I wanted to turn it into something; it felt like Swervedriver. “I’m A Liar” was just a little ditty I had, and I was fingerpicking and realizing it sounded too much like “My Name is Jonas” so I had to change it up. I call it my shitty Weezer song, and I don’t mean to disrespect it, but it’s basically just one part and the bridge. “Shoulder The Weight” was out of nowhere, and it’s funny because people keep commenting on the bass part and I don’t know how to write or play bass, but it was a fun song to write. I think they used the F-word around it, you know, “funk”. “In The Drink” was brand new; it felt like a Superchunk song to me. Like Superchunk meets Bob Mould or Sugar. I mean, I could even go through the songs and tell you what bands I compare them to.
Oh yeah, and “Goodnight Hiroyuki” was something I just whipped out that felt like it belonged in the My Bloody Valentine world, a little bit. Not as shoegazy.
I was gonna say, if you had to pick a shoegaze track, it’s probably that one.
Yeah, I feel like that and “Sooner” are the shoegazy songs. Alright, let’s just go through it:
“Undone” is like my Pavement, Flaming Lips tune.
“Anchor” is kind of part Superchunk, part I don’t know what; it’s a weird one.
“I Don’t Know Why She Ran Away” went a different direction but I was trying to channel The Boo Radleys, but then it just turned into a pop song. I think it’s the closest to Motion City.
“Moonbeam”, like I said, is like Pernice Brothers meets Flaming Lips meets Limbeck. I got Jenny Owen Youngs to sing on that! I’ve been trying to do something with her for years. We keep going back and forth writing things for each other.
“Ready Player One”, I feel, was a lot like The Jealous Sound. Especially in the bass.
“I’m A Liar” is kinda Weezer. Well, the chorus feels like Weezer. I don’t know what the verses are.
“Sooner”, yeah, Swervedriver.
“Shoulder The Weight”, in a weird way, has a Nada Surf element to it, in the chorus. The ending is a little Guided By Voices tribute.
“In The Drink”, yup, Superchunk, Bob Mould.
“Goodnight Hiroyuki”, My Bloody Valentine.
There we go! There it is! That’s all you need to know. So if you listen to any of those bands, you’ll realize I’m just doing a shitty job of ripping people off.
So you’re a little over a week into this tour and we spoke before about how you were in the process of finding a band for this. Did you have a specific kind of process in terms of getting your live band together as opposed to those who helped you in the studio?
Well with Farewell Continental, I liked how a female voice and my voice worked together. So when I did [this] record, I got Molly Solomon, who did most of the backups. She’s in Communist Daughter and I like that band a lot. So I thought about this tour, I definitely wanted a female singer, and if she can play guitar or bass, that would be even better.
I knew I really wanted Tommy to come with me because I knew he could capture the pure audio fucked-ness of it all. I love his guitar playing and he’s a monster. David played on the record and he’s a solid drummer who already knew the songs. I’d always wanted to play with Shannon [Burns, The Forecast] and I even tried to get her on the record but it didn’t end up working out. And then with Lydia, I didn’t know her before this tour. She’s playing guitar and singing harmonies. But she had worked with P.O.S, who recommended her to me. She worked with him a bunch and also had a song that was basically “Baby It’s Cold Outside, With Consent” and it went viral a few years ago so I loved that. Plus she has a great voice and she can play! I really wanted to play with people I hadn’t played with before.
There was a lot of thought that went into it, but it was based on both the record and people I knew and how I wanted it to mesh.
This is your first full US tour since Motion City’s farewell tour. Has it made you appreciate your time away more? Did you miss this?
I missed a version of this. I can say now, without feeling like an asshole, that I can write a song. I don’t know if people will like this song, but I’m good at writing. Recording is a little more stressful; it’s the stage where you can fuck things up. The next level, performing, is where I just feel like a garbage person. Not exactly, but I have these huge expectations and I want to be perfect all the time, so when I don’t hit that—and I never do—I feel like a complete failure, because it’s not perfect. I want to sound as good as I am on the record, I want to pull it off…I don’t know, maybe my brain is just broken. It’s hard for me to enjoy that aspect as much as others seem to enjoy it. I can’t just rock out. I’d love to join a band and just play guitar, I think that would be fun.
The part that’s so stressful is that my voice is like…if I really go for it, it’s gone within a show. So I have to learn how to sing around what’s wrong with my voice in order to get it to sound good for a lengthy period of time. So I have rules for myself in that I only drink water, I sleep as much as I can, and I don’t talk from the time I step off stage until the time I soundcheck [the following day].
Years of seeing Motion City reminds me of that, for sure. It’s something my friends and I remember. And you never came off as an asshole for it, you were very polite about it, and we respected that because we never knew anybody else who did that.
Oh good, it sucks! The problem is that I’m not built to be a singer; I shouldn’t be one, but I am one. So I have to do all this work just to get by. It’s frustrating. When I play live, I’m like “FUCK! Why am I not as good as all these people that I love?” It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, I just wish that I were better. But I guess that’s better than thinking you’re the shit and you’re amazing, then what’s the point of doing anything? It keeps you on your toes…fuck, what was the original question?
Did you miss touring?
I would say that I’ve learned a lot on this tour and that, if I were to do another thing, I think I would need help, I’d need a tour manager so I could enjoy the experience more…or it would just be me and Tommy in a car and I’d just play acoustic. So it’d have to be a little bit bigger or a little bit smaller. With what we’re doing right now, I bit off a little more than I can chew. So, am I enjoying it? I’m enjoying that I’m getting to relive my 20s through some of these people who haven’t ever toured like this. It’s really fun to be in a van full of stuff where nobody can move. It’s real cramped and smells of socks. It’s fun to remember that and to relive your youth in a way. But I don’t think I want to do it again [laughs]. But am I enjoying the tour? With most things I do, I have to get away from it for a while and think about it and then later go “Oh! That was good!” It’s so hard to be in it and think about it. But I will say that I’m having a lot of fun.
The other night, before I played my first show, I got to talk to my wife and my daughter. My daughter said “You’re gonna do great, Dad!” In that moment, I realized it didn’t matter. I could go out there and shit the bed and I think people would still be okay. I’m not going to do that, but knowing that I could do that relieved some of the self-imposed anxiety that I have. I’m just thinking about my daughter and realizing that’s what matters. Not that this doesn’t matter.
My wife is constantly like “You dummy! They’re here to see you! It’s not like they’re going to leave!” And I realize that I don’t have to win anybody over, I just need to do a good job.
To cap it off, it’s the age-old question: what’s next for you after the second leg of this tour?
I kind of joked that I have a ten-year plan. That’s already shifted and changed. I ideally wanted a record a year and in between to release some EPs or something. But that’s already proving to be impossible, with the amount of physical and emotional strain. I just haven’t had time to be creative. If I’m able to still do something, it’ll probably be two years between every record. I may have to get a job, it just kind of depends on what happens.
I have about ten albums. Not finished songs, but just ideas and snippets. All different genres, though. In my head, I wanted to start close to Motion City and then venture off into unknown territory in kind of Tom Waits or Beck or David Bowie sort of way and just kind of see what happens and what’s out there. If people are down to go on that ride, that would be awesome. But I understand that sometimes, if you get a little too weird, people might not be into that.
For In The Drink, it was a celebration of the ‘90s alternative indie rock music I grew up on. But there’s a lot of things I dig; I like a lot of electronic music, I like big band jazz. Combining all of these ideas into other things, I don’t know how that’s going to go over, but I think that’s something I’m more interested in doing now that I’ve done other things. Motion City was a specific thing, so I understand that people might not want to come along for this ride, but I think that’s what I need to do for me.
I think that’s it: from here on out, I’m going to do things that I like. I did this record, I paid for it myself, and it kind of just fell together. Enough people were interested in the idea, Epitaph was into it, Josh didn’t think it was shitty and people hearing it are like “Oh, this doesn’t suck!” It’s just exciting that I did a thing that I wanted to do and people came along for the ride. I think I’m just going to keep that up.