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Commit This to Memory

The Minneapolis-based pop-punk act Motion City Soundtrack proves that its success is no novelty.

Jesse Johnson isn't the typical keyboardist for an upbeat pop-punk band whose latest album was partially produced by the Cars' Ric Ocasek. Instead of worshipping the Beach Boys — like Ocasek's former protégés Weezer and The Pink Spiders — Johnson was weaned on underground indie and hardcore pioneers such as Cap'n Jazz and Unbroken. Alternately, while his band's fans are generally high school age, Johnson recently celebrated his 30th birthday —and he's not Motion City Soundtrack's youngest member. Finally, despite the fact that critics are already touting the band's third full-length Even If It Kills Me as the band's mainstream breakthrough, it sounds more like a '90s alternative rock album than, say, Fall Out Boy.

"It's kind of nice [playing in a relatively poppy band], because after listening to so much harder stuff for so long I was getting a little burnt out on it," Johnson explains from a stop on the band's current headlining tour, where they are supported by Mae, Anberlin and Metro Station. "There were only so many times I could listen to my Disembodied or Damnation A.D. records before it all sounded the same." Johnson's love of such bands makes sense, as despite Motion City Soundtrack's pop sensibilities, the band has always borrowed liberally from underground punk icons as much as they have from pop monoliths.

"Especially on [the band's 2003 debut] I Am the Movie, there was a connection, guitar-wise, to Fugazi or the Pixies; there was a little bit of dissonance," he adds proudly. "It wasn't just three-chord power pop. There was a still a little bit of grit in it."

Motion City Soundtrack: The future isn't freaking them out anymore.
Kentaro Kambe
Motion City Soundtrack: The future isn't freaking them out anymore.

And yes, despite splitting up the production credits between Ocasek and the team of Eli Janney (Girls Against Boys) and Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), there's still plenty of grit to Even If It Kills Me; you just might have to dig a little bit harder to find it. Guitarist Josh Cain notes that one of defining factors of Kills is the presence of Johnson's inspired Moog lines — which took a bit of a back seat on 2005's Commit This To Memory. However, singer/guitarist Justin Pierre's improved mental state was equally crucial to the end result — and while sometimes emotional stability can be a detriment to introspective acts, there's still a fair share of melancholy inherent in Kills' lyrics.

"This album is a mixture of the first two records," Cain says. "Justin [Pierre] was in such a bad state of mind when he wrote our last album that it turned out to be a really grim record — whereas this record is more about being lonely and less about being self-loathing."

In fact for every saccharine song like "Fell In Love Without You" or "This Is For Real," there's a song like the atmospheric and moody "Hello Helicopter" (which admittedly retains a chorus so sweet that it could give you cavities) or the minimalist piano ballad "The Conversation," both of which are a huge departure from the band's previous efforts. "For me, my favorite song on the record is 'Last Night,'" Cain says. "It's a really catchy song, but it's missing a lot of the traditional elements you would normally put in a pop song, so I feel like it's kind of a cool take on something traditional," he elaborates, adding that the song reminds him of both the Cure and Death Cab for Cutie.

Motion City Soundtrack has spent the last few years touring in vans and sweating it out on their way to the Warped Tour's main stage. But when it burst onto the scene with the song "The Future Freaks Me Out" in 2003, the band could have been just another quirky (and quickly forgotten­) pop novelty act like American Hi-Fi. (Remember them?) "I think 'The Future Freaks Me Out' stands out on that record as being the ridiculous pop song, because songs like 'Cambridge' and 'Don't Call It A Comeback,' are pretty aggressive if you listen back to it," Johnson says. "Honestly, despite the fact that song was the single, it was written in fifteen minutes and all of the sudden everything was there," he continues. "It totally came out of nowhere."

However, the success of the aforementioned track eventually proved to be both a blessing and a curse for the band — although at this point it seems as if Motion City Soundtrack has transcended its roots and become one of the touchstone acts in the current punk landscape.

"'The Future Freaks Me Out' was kind of a double-edged sword because the song was immediately adopted and loved by people who ended up being our fans," Johnson explains. "But at the same time, within the music business we were being judged by that song because of the wacky lyrics and over-the-top poppiness. So we were gaining our younger fans and people like that in the scene, but almost pushing ourselves away from the older fans."

The crowd at a typical Motion City Soundtrack show these days proves that it no longer has that stigma attached to it. In fact, its fan base is one of the more diverse ones around, encompassing everything from screaming teenaged girls to twenty-something hipsters in every possible combination of race, gender and class. Johnson is exceedingly proud of this.

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