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An Interview with Justin Courtney Pierre, Motion City Soundtrack Singer Turned Solo Act

December 12, 2018

When Motion City Soundtrack effectively ended their nine year, six album run in 2016, lead singer Justin Courtney Pierre wasn’t sure what the future would hold. He took some time off, savoring quality time with his wife and daughter. In pondering his next chapter, Pierre briefly considered trading in his microphone for a CPA license (yes, for real), but he couldn’t shake off the songs coursing through his veins.

After employing the production expertise of former bandmate Joshua Cain, he found there were enough songs to make an album. Epitaph gave that album a listen and decided to add Pierre as a solo artist to their roster. The result? In The Drink was released on October 12, 2018 to mostly positive reviews and the welcoming arms of loyal Motion City fans. Justin was kind enough to give us a call to chat about his new album and how he sees the current musical landscape.

It hasn’t been too long since you’ve put out an album but how did it feel to be calling your own shots and recording songs that were yours?

Terrifying and exciting, thrilling…yeah..kind of all of–I don’t know it was weird. It was like feelings that were in direct opposition to each other. I think that, you know, being in a band, with a bunch of people for such a long time, you kinda know that people have your back um, and I guess I was the only one who had my back and I wasn’t sure if I even did? Yeah, I don’t know it was weird . . . As opposed to knowing that you have other people you can count on to kinda fill in the gaps. And there’s a certain amount of uncertainty that always surrounds me whenever I do anything so when I’m the one calling the shots, there’s a lot more of that uncertainty. I’m kind of a tinkerer and a fiddler. I could always be working on things forever. I’m not somebody who just writes it all out and it’s done.

I think a lot of artists are like that aren’t they? Where unless someone says stop you just wanna keep refining things or changing it.

I don’t know yeah, like, ideas happen daily. Like you could feel differently about something each day.

When did you write these songs? Have they been in the works for a long time? Or did they all pop up while you were on hiatus?

I think some of the ideas had been floating around for a while but they were just ideas. The brunt of it was written several months after we played our last show I think, somewhere in the winter of 2016, [20]17. I just started working on it and things just started happening. I feel like I went for so long without writing anything, that then when I did and when I eventually do again, the ideas just kind of are overflowing. And then you hit a spot where if you’re working on something for one month or two months straight the ideas just stop flowing and you just have to be patient I think and show up for work and and sometimes you just stand there waiting for things to happen. And nothing happens. Then eventually things will and do happen. Kinda sounds like weird, like existential ethereal bullshit but that’s kinda how this went.

No, I get it.

What I’m saying is, to condense it. It was an intense short period of time writing followed by a lengthy time of tinkering.

How has becoming a parent shaped how you make music or how you see art or how you go about making it?

I think in terms of the art itself, it seeps in there. I think as you, I don’t know it’s weird. I can both put myself in a place that I used to be in but I’m no longer there. So I don’t know how authentic that is, but I remember things a certain way. And then there’s these new things like being married or having kids or your life changing or getting older. Those things seep in there as well. And then you can kind of mix them up and it gets a little confusing but I think that’s a good thing. I forget who it was, I think it was Malcolm Gladwell, a podcast he had and he was talking about how there’s two different types of musicians. There’s like a Leonard Cohen type and there’s Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan just writes it all out and then it’s done. It’s a song. It’s the end. It’s over. But Leonard Cohen will write it and then he’ll rewrite it. And then rerecord it. Ten years later he’ll do it again, a different version just constantly evolving and changing. I think there’s probably some sort of mix in between that. I know this will connect back to your question. I feel like in a way I’m sort of writing, not necessarily the same songs, but there’s a lot things that are just ever present and I can’t shake them. But having kids and being married and getting older, I think those are 3 things that have happened to me. I guess being sober is another thing. It sorta changes that thing, the song that I’m writing. It’s like a slow burn. It’s like slowly evolving over time so yeah, I don’t know. I have also I guess since having my daughter, being a dad. I feel like I have changed. It’s hard to do but I’m getting better at it. Putting everything out of my mind and just focusing on the moment especially with her. Whether she’s playing or doing something or whatever random thing it is that we’re doing, trying to focus on that. In that moment sometimes I remember that in the grand scheme of things nothing really matters other than these moments that we have with each other. I think that that’s affected the writing in terms of not being so precious with it and just letting things happen. And I sort of discovered something around 2007 2008, when I started playing with Farewell Continental, which was just an exercise in writing without thinking. And I loved it. Finding words that sounded like you could eat them. The sound of the words were almost more important than the actual words. After that point I feel like I kinda started weaving that into Motion City records like from My Dinosaur Life on. And I feel like I’ve been taking things from all these projects that I’ve been working on and doing. They found their way into this new record. I think that writing really fast, some of the songs just ended up writing themselves in a way and then other songs were like, I’ve been at it for seven months and I only have a few more days to finish this. I have to finish these lyrics. So some of those songs ended up on the record too. Sometimes I know exactly what the songs are about and sometimes I don’t and it’s not until later that I figure it out or I piece things together. So I’m kinda going way off here. But I think that’s how it’s changed. Instead of keeping these projects separate. I’ve kind of combined them completely. They’ve kind of been combined into one. Because it’s just me writing it. So that’s a really long winded answer. Sorry about that. Good luck!

When you did an interview with Billboard you talked about how when you were on hiatus you considered being an accountant. Were you serious about that?

Uh I think I was. For a hot minute I was on tour with MC I think it was 2016, before we ended and we knew it was ending. I didn’t know what to do. I can’t do anything. I come up with ideas where there are no ideas. And then I tell stories about those ideas and that’s like a real specific thing and I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t even know if I know how to do that well. I was thinking what are things that I enjoy doing? I love numbers and math and money in terms of calculation and things of that sort and I was like, oh wait, accounting! That makes sense. So then I started looking into it and then I was like oh yeah,  this is pretty much like being a lawyer if you wanna do the accounting and stuff, way more work than I thought it would actually be. And my wife pretty much said I would be a miserable person if I did that. It was very short lived. Within a course of a week the dream was already dead. The accounting dream.

Did you determine at the end of that, you weren’t meant for a 9-5 job? Or do you think down the line that it could be something you’d be interested in?

I’ll do anything if it comes down to I need to make money in order to eat, for my kids, I’ll do anything I don’t care what it is, but I don’t know that I’m good at certain things. I don’t know. I figured out — a lot of it too that’s changed since having a kid is money. Just sort of like, ok, I just gotta figure out what I need to survive. I think as long as I can do that. I don’t need a shitloads of money. I just need enough to survive. So trying to figure out what that number is and how much money I have in the bank and how much I can set on fire in the name of art to make this record. I rolled the dice and I took a chance and made a record. It just started out as just ideas then they became songs and then these ten or twelve songs worked together. And then I called my buddy Josh Cain and was like, ‘hey do you want to produce this record for zero dollars?’ He said no, but I’ll produce it for a few hundred dollars’. I paid him some money, not an exorbitant amount. We tried to keep it real simple and we made a record and we were like damn, this doesn’t sound bad. I’ve had a lot of really cool people help me out with this and keep the overhead low. And then Epitaph, played it for Mr. Brett and company and Epitaph liked it enough to put their name on it and get behind it. It just sort of happened.

There is an element of that where I sort knew in the back of my head that this might be one and done. And it still could be. Who knows? I hope it’s not. In terms of people– like a label. I just didn’t have the energy to figure out how to do this on my own. I was grateful Epitaph wanted to help me, wanted to do this. Because then I would free me up to work on the art and all the music videos and all the–. I guess art is the word that I’ve been getting behind lately as well and wanting to make as much of it in every form that I can. Where was I going with this? I think…

That’s OK.

I lost my train of thought.

We were talking about if you could have a 9-5 and it sounds like you could if you were still able to be creative. But it sounds like you just want to create art and keep doing it for as long as you can.

How do you feel about how people are receiving and digesting music now?

That’s tough. I think that, this isn’t necessarily about music. This is about, I think, the United States and the way this country runs. There are good and bad things about capitalism. But I think that the negative thing is that you’ve got a few people at the top trying to figure out how they can make a few more pennies and they don’t really care about the people at the bottom. That’s the only problem I have with anything. But in terms of how people digest the music. I don’t personally care how they do it, I’m just happy that they do it and that they like it. So yeah it’s all good.

Do you like being able to get instant feedback on social media?

Oh yeah. Absol –Like I love the social media aspect of things. I mean for me I just like to fuck around. Or just mess around with people. Sometimes people write some really wonderful things, and personal stuff and I’m blown away. Other times I’m just messing around and stuff. It’s just fun to interact. I don’t get to do that a whole lot in person because I never talk after shows, because my voice is always… I need to preserve it otherwise I lose it easily. I tend to interact with people that way. I do like it. I don’t know if it’s good to listen to everything. But I do think you have to listen to the people that hate you as well as the people that like you, otherwise you just kind of got blinders on. But maybe it’s better not to listen to anything. But it does feel good when people say nice things about you. You know?

Yeah, of course it does. I think that’s why most people like the internet. We’re all looking for ‘likes’ right?

Yeah I know. It’s weird. Cause like a part of me wouldn’t probably use any of these sites on my own if I wasn’t making music. I just think it’s a lot of work and I’m not that interested in telling people about myself. It’s weird cause I can do it in art and I can do it in songs and music and all that but it terms of having to present it to people on Instagram a certain way and Twitter and all that. I just do whatever I want and make it weird or not weird. I’m not trying to show myself in the best looking light and all this stuff. That doesn’t interest me. I’m more interested in –well, I don’t know. I’ll just say anarchy for now.

Do you feel like artists have a responsibility to voice opinions about the current climate? Do you think it’s ok to not say anything? It seems like if you stay silent on it, people view that as almost irresponsible. How do you feel about that?

Going back to MC, I feel like we…this was a few years ago, well up until a few years ago but we never really got political at all because we didn’t want to– well, I don’t want to misspeak. We just wanted to be about the music that we were doing. Personally I feel certain ways about things. I don’t like. I guess I don’t–for awhile I felt very angry and umm and then when I put angry things out in the world that just seemed like a bad idea. I remember hearing or reading a story about Sarah Silverman. How some guy on Twitter or something called her something horrible and was really just outright mean to her and she applied something like ‘oh you sound like you’re in a lot of pain. I’m sorry you feel that way.’ Something completely the opposite of this person saying horrible things and then they got into it and he revealed he had back issues and was in pain all the time and he’s sorry and all this stuff, whatever. She ended up getting him a doctor. It was like this weird thing. I don’t even know if it’s real or not. But it blew my mind. It was like, oh, that’s interesting. Also that combined with meeting some of my friends who might have different views than I have and we’re able to be friends and talk about things and not hate each other. I’ve been in this mode for the last, like, a year now, of digesting. I’ve been trying to figure out how I want to communicate my thoughts and ideas with people. But yeah, I kinda stepped back because like I said, a lot of what i was putting out was like ‘This is the way it is! Fuck you!’ I don’t think I like that anymore. I think that’s how everybody is. You’ve got people on one side or the other. I don’t know. It sucks because I definitely am on one side of things but I’m just trying not to get upset or hate.

Yeah, it sounds like if you’re going to put something out there you want it to be beneficial versus just sounding off and being mad at the world.

I don’t know that I’m smart enough to be able to talk about things in a…. There are certain people that when they communicate ideas, they’re communicated well and they’re understood. For me, going back to the music and stuff it takes me so long to figure things out. I’ll be writing a song for two years. Even this, doing an interview and trying to express an idea. It’s much better if I have a few weeks to think about it and ponder it and really get it right. Otherwise I’ll say something and it might not be right. But I think for the most part, for the record, I fall pretty hard left with all of my ideals and ideas. And especially seeing what happened in the wake of Bernie Sanders and the resolution so to speak. I think that I am all for the people.  It starts with people and ends with people for me. Basically I think, I’m all for the reign of the old white man being over. I know that that’s not like, I have nothing against them. It’s cool, you did great, alright, take a bow and let’s let some other people run this ship. That’s basically it. It’s very simple. It’s hard not to get angry. I just really hope that…it’s exciting to see all that like, I don’t know…what this country actually is and can be. It’s exciting to see that kind of start happening. We’re all from somewhere else, you know? And it would be great to see that representation everywhere, whether it’s in politics or art or on the television or wherever. That’s kinda what I’m hoping for that more of that starts happening. If somebody reads this and disagrees, then so be it and you don’t have to listen to my music.

With this new album what do you want people to know about it or get from it? Is there an overall message that you’re trying to send or tell people about yourself at this point in your life?

I don’t know that there’s anything… It’s hard to talk about. I don’t want to say too much. There’s no agenda.

OK, that’s fair.

The only thing that was specifically thought out whether you get it or not is that I tried to write all of these songs from kind of like a choose your own adventure style. Which I guess I’ve always been doing to some degree. Where you can look at it and it can mean one thing if you look at it a certain and another thing if you look at it a different way. If I’m really lucky maybe you can get three different ways you can look at it. I was listening to some people review my record on a podcast and I don’t think they liked it very much. I was listening to it [pause] and it was weird. They were like, this is a great solo artist record but I don’t think I like it. It was weird. Super passive aggressive. They got to a moment where they were talked about one of the songs and what it was about and it was completely 100% wrong and I just started laughing out loud. I was like, ‘oh, this is amazing!’ It’s  great that they had their own idea. And it also made me feel good like then everything they said, it didn’t mean anything. I don’t have to accept it whether it’s good or bad. Criticism in any form in terms of art is meaningless. It’s all just personal preference. And I know that. But I had this moment where I keep telling myself that I don’t care what people say but I was kinda bummed that they didn’t like it. After that, it was like, oh you have no idea. It was great that they didn’t like it or they had a different idea about what the song was. I think I succeeded in a way despite what they were saying about it. What was the original question?

You know, I’m not even sure  [laughing]

I read that you played all of the instruments with the exception of the drums and trumpets and some background vocals on your album, was that by design?

I did some of the harmonies but all the other harmonies are Molly Solomon from Communist Daughter. And Jenny O’Neill sings on Moonbeam.

Did you do that because you wanted control over the way things sounded or because you didn’t want to pay someone else to do them?

I think I did it just because it’s faster. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to pull off the bass. Josh is a great bass player so he could’ve done it but I was just there and I wrote all the parts. Josh and David said, these parts are bonkers, you’re going to have to do it. I think I did it because it’s faster because I wrote everything. It’s not a fun answer but that’s —

The truth?

My dream is to be like Tom Waits and to be able to hire this person to play bass on this song and this person play saxophone on this song and this person to play drums or whatever it is. I’d love to get to a place where I can hire people and do real specific sounding records. This record was my attempt at like, you know, reliving that high school experience I had. I can listen to these songs and go oh, there’s that Weezer thing, there’s that Slow Driver thing, there’s that Super Chunk thing and there’s that Boo Radley thing and there’s that Pavement thing. It was sort of an ode to the 90’s in terms of the songs and ode to my past and an ode to right now it’s all kind of mixed up and jumbled together.

Justin Courtney Pierre’s album In The Drink is available now at all major music outlets.

 

By  Sarah Osterbauer

 

 

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