Pop Goes the Emo

Motion City Soundtrack survives booze and breakups to make a hook-filled CD.

Motion City Soundtrack pop punk Ric Ocasek With Anberlin, Mae, and Metro Station. 7 p.m. Friday, December 14, at the Agora Theater, 5000 Euclid Avenue, $19.99, 216-241-5555.
"Psst, dude . . . you have bed-head."
"Psst, dude . . . you have bed-head."

There were times when Motion City Soundtrack singer and guitarist Justin Pierre's drinking problem got way out of control. Not Keith Moon-style out of control; he never passed out onstage and had to be replaced by an audience member for the rest of the concert. But it came close a couple of times, says drummer Tony Thaxton.

"We did a show in Michigan, and Justin was drunk out of his mind," Thaxton recalls. "When he started playing, I thought he was fucking around, because I'd never heard anything that horrific. We ended up turning off his amp, but he kept playing. He had no clue what was going on. It was a disaster of a night."

Pierre has been sober for almost seven months now. It's fitting that Motion City Soundtrack titled its third album Even if It Kills Me, says Thaxton, because there were moments when it seemed like one or more of the guys wouldn't be around to complete it. "Then it felt like we were going to get through everything — especially with Justin — even if it killed us," he says. "I know that sounds kinda cheesy."

Even if It Kills Me is the band's best and catchiest CD. Motion City Soundtrack always ranked at the very top of emo's poppiest-groups list; Even if It Kills Me nearly pushes it off the chart. MCS had no specific goal for the album, other than to enlist hook-minded producers Adam Schlesinger (the power-pop mastermind behind Fountains of Wayne and countless other super-melodic projects) and Ric Ocasek (who steered the Cars' new wave into pop territory and manned the boards on Weezer's debut).

"There really wasn't a huge, conscious decision to do anything different," says Thaxton. "We always just try to make records we like and hope everyone else will like them too. We hope to grow a little bit with each record, but it's never like, 'We have to do this, because we've never done it before.'"

Songs like "This Is for Real," "Last Night," and "Calling All Cops" are tuneful ruminations on the usual emo subjects (heartbreak, lust, more heartbreak). But MCS loads each and every track with keyboard riffs straight outta 1985 and hooks worthy of the power-pop groups their producer-mentors worked and played with.

Schlesinger and Ocasek coat Even if It Kills Me with a super-slick sheen that Blink-182's Mark Hoppus (who produced MCS' last album, 2005's Commit This to Memory) couldn't quite pull off. "We knew we wanted this to be our pop record," says Thaxton. "We've always considered our stuff to be fairly poppy, but we just went for it this time. The producers definitely helped in that aspect. Adam has tons of ideas and loves trying different things. Even if it sucks, he wants to try it, just to see what it sounds like.

"There are a lot more harmonies and even strings this time," he continues. "There's also a lot of different instrumentation we never used before. It was a weird challenge for us."

There's also a sense that these proudly pop mall punks have (gulp) grown up. Where Pierre used to write and sing morose lines like "I'm so full of love, it deeply sickens me," he now lightens up a little: "Let's get wrecked on Pop-Tarts and sex, and see the Taj Mahal," he sings on Even if It Kills Me's "It Had to Be You," one of the album's many cuts that chart the end and beginning of a truly scarring relationship.

"Some of the songs [came together] really fast — like within an hour," says Thaxton. "But ironically, the song 'Can't Finish What You Started,' we've been working on since before our last record. It was three or four years in the making."

Motion City Soundtrack first came together a decade ago. But it was a different band back then, says Thaxton, who (along with keyboardist Jesse Johnson and bassist Matt Taylor) joined five years ago. "That's when it began to make sense and became what it needed to become," he says. (Co-founding guitarist Joshua Cain rounds out the group.)

But then the band's aspirations grew. The guys left Minneapolis (where Pierre first brought them together) and are now spread throughout the country — from New York to California, where Thaxton recently moved. "We played any show we possibly could to anyone who would listen," says Thaxton. "There were many, many tours in a van, playing lots of terrible shows to 10 people. The big difference is, people actually come to see us now."

Shitty gigs, numerous tours of the Midwest, and several EPs that very few people heard eventually led to 2002's I Am the Movie, MCS' debut album, which immediately expanded its fan base. "Nobody can say that we haven't worked really hard to get where we've gotten to," says Thaxton.

But without all of those tough times in its collective memory, Motion City Soundtrack would never have made a record as assured as Even if It Kills Me, says Thaxton. And even though Pierre's addiction often got in the way of the music — Thaxton is pretty sure the singer was drunk through most of Even if It Kills Me's songwriting stage — everyone's happy with the results. "Justin's had his ups and downs," he says. "But he kept himself clean during the recording of the record. It definitely helps when he's sober."

In the end, maybe that's just what Motion City Soundtrack needed to get it though its most consistent, likable, and, yes, poppiest album. "I'm excited to see what it'll be like next time, when Justin's hopefully sober for the entire writing and recording," says Thaxton. "We're looking forward to working with a completely sober Justin."

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