Motion City Soundtrack: 'Nerds at Heart”

Motion City Soundtrack have a confession to make. “We’re just a bunch of nerdy kids who are old,” says lead guitarist/co-founder Joshua Cain. He and longtime friend and lead vocalist/guitarist Justin Pierre started touring the world after leaving their respective Minneapolis homes more than a decade ago. Though, as they’ve matured, some things stayed the same. “We’re still playing video games and love pop culture,” 33-year-old Cain says.

Despite their adolescent sensibility, Cain and his hyperkinetic, power-pop cohorts have encountered the very adult challenge of identity as they face a crossroads in their personal and professional careers: joining a major label. For five years, Motion City Soundtrack (MCS) were signed to seminal label Epitaph (NOFX, Rancid, Pennywise), founded by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz. For their just-released record My Dinosaur Life, MCS moved to Columbia Records, where their label mates include AC/DC, Beyoncé and Susan Boyle.

As Cain talks on the phone while walking between tour buses before a show in Cincinnati, he sounds confident that the quintet’s new label will be a good move in the rapidly changing music business. “After being on a great label like Epitaph, we didn’t want to sign something that wasn’t as good of a deal,” he says. “We had so much control of what was going on for us. We haven’t lost much of that, and [Columbia] is more supportive of us because they know everyone is trying to make ends meet. It’s a different culture now than it was 10 years ago.”

For their major-label debut, MCS enlisted some music-industry heavyweights to craft their album in the studios of North Hollywood. With legendary engineer/producer Andy Wallace (Prince, Bruce Springsteen Nirvana) helming and Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus helping out, they forged a sound that was familiar but more accessible. “This new album was such a heavy record that we wanted to try Andy Wallace out,” Cain says. “The past few records were catchy, maybe the lyrics were dark. But for this album, it’s dark songwriting and dark lyrics. It felt like a straightforward rock record.”

Hoppus provided a much-needed outside ear to help shape the record. MCS took finished tracks to him, and he would then assist in fine-tuning their big-guitar aesthetic for a broader audience craving sweet hooks. “Mark came out to rearrange songs and told us to rewrite parts,” Cain says. “He comes from the same school of thought that we do most of the time; he knows what we’re looking for.”

That said, Cain insists the sun-soaked, pop-punk style of Blink doesn’t dominate the record. “I wasn’t influenced by Southern California music; we grew up in Minneapolis, so Chicago bands were big for me and that DC sound, not the pop-punk thing of Southern California.”

Even with the high-powered producers behind them, Cain says there’s no formula for the perfect pop song, no matter how hard they try in the studio. It just happens.

“Sometimes we’ll be writing a song, and you just know, ‘This is it,’” Cain explains. “I’ve tried to analyze it at times, but it’s just a moment when something sounds different from anything you’ve heard before. Some songs are just magical, and there’s nothing to do about it.”

My Dinosaur Life pushes the band’s sound past the Rentals-influenced, synth-nerd style that earned them attention in the early 2000s. The new disc is fuller and edgier, but it’s never harsh or alienating. “We’ve heard a lot of moms tell us, ‘I got your CD for my kid, but I ended up listening to it all the time.’ But I still see myself in a lot of the kids who come to our shows. We’re still nerds at heart.”

As MCS embark on their first tour of the new decade, they face serious questions and an uncertain road ahead. How do they go mainstream without compromising their confident, carefree sound? Can the band—and their friendship—withstand such pressure?

Cain’s not too worried about it. “We don’t try too hard to do anything, really,” he says. “The key is we’re going to be ourselves. We just do what we like and hope someone else likes it, too.”

Motion City Soundtrack perform with Set Your Goals, This Providence and the Swellers at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; Mon., 6:30 p.m. $22.50-$25. All ages.

This article appeared in print as “Major Moves: Motion City Soundtrack’s Joshua Cain on leaving Epitaph for Columbai.”

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