Justin Courtney Pierre
In 1997 Pierre co-founded Motion City Soundtrack, the widely celebrated rock band whose last album Panic Stations hit the Billboard 200. Although Pierre had initially planned to focus on domestic life after the band went on hiatus in 2016, he soon felt compelled to revisit the hundreds of voice memos, lyrical scribblings, and melody ideas he’d compiled since age seven. “There is a part of me that just needs to make stuff, so with whatever free time I had I’d be writing and then I’d clean the house and then I’d write some more,” Pierre recalls.
Recorded sporadically over the course of seven months, In The Drink was self-funded and a true labor of love. “I wanted to make a record that sounded like the kind of albums I listened to as a teenager in the early ’90s, and I think we succeeded and failed in exactly the right ways,” says Pierre.
It's been a couple of years since we heard from Justin Courtney Pierre. When we last left off, his celebrated rock band Motion City Soundtrack decided to take a hiatus following a victory lap in support of their sixth album, Panic Stations. This culminated with a Riot Fest performance and a sold-out, career-spanning show at The Metro in Chicago in September of 2016... and since then aside from a few sporadic singles—both under his own name and as half of the video-game-themed duo The Rapture Twins—Pierre has kept a pretty low profile after spending nearly two decades in the band. In reality, what he's been doing lately hasn't been terribly exciting bio fodder: He's been in Minneapolis, mowing the lawn, cultivating tomatoes, taking care of his daughter and figuring out who he is if he isn't the guy fronting Motion City Soundtrack.
But don't worry, that doesn't mean he hasn't been making music.
“I guess the jumping off point for this album was that I wanted to see if I could just write everything myself and perform as much of it as I could,” Pierre says of the impetus for his first solo album, In The Drink. “I didn't really have a goal in mind other than I wanted to see if I could pull it off.” Pierre originally planned on living domestically after Motion City died down but instantly felt an almost cosmic pull to revisit the hundreds of voice memos, lyrical scribblings and melody ideas that he had been compiling since age 7. “There is a part of me that just needs to make stuff so with whatever free time I had I'd be writing and then I'd clean the house and then I'd write some more...” Pierre says. “I didn't really think about it too much, I just sort of did it and it ended up coming together a lot sooner than I thought.” I interviewed his wife and she confirmed that Justin kept the house very clean during the completion of the album. He also performed all of the grocery shopping, made phone calls to billing departments of various utilities companies, caught and released small insects that found their way into the house, prepared dinner at least twice a week and took out the recycling on the right day 80% of the time.
When it came to recording the songs, it made perfect sense to enlist longtime collaborator and Motion City Soundtrack guitarist Josh Cain to produce In The Drink. “Working with Josh on this album was super fun because we have been working together for 20 years and basically share a brain. But it didn't have the same dynamic of Motion City Soundtrack in the sense that at the end of the day I got to call all the shots,” Pierre says. Recorded sporadically, with drummer David Jarnstrom (Gratitude, BNLX) over the course of seven months at various studios, rehearsal spaces, and restrooms, the album was self-funded and a true labor of love. “I wanted to make a record that sounded like the kind of albums I listened to as a teenager in the early nineties and I think we succeeded and failed in exactly the right ways,” Pierre explains, adding that it would have been finished in a few weeks had it not been for the fact that he is incredibly adept at procrastinating. “I’m really good at not doing things.” But it's not all his fault: The album would have been finished even sooner than that had it not been for a guy with a wireless rig who would walk around the practice space playing metal licks and subsequently delay many recording sessions. (Unfortunately that guy isn't on the album because he wouldn't sign a release.)
“Gone are the lives that we used to know.”
One day Pierre came across an old photo of himself from the days before his eight years of sobriety which featured him suspended in the air, arms raised, mid-karate kick and that's about as much as he'd like to say about the meaning behind these songs (it's on the cover of the album if you want to see it, too). “I came across that photo and thought, 'I don't know why or how but this perfectly represents two completely different moments in time in two completely different ways – the past and the present' and then I went back to the songs and saw how each one affected the others,” he explains. “I feel like I finally understand artists who seem a bit cryptic. I don’t think it’s intentional but it's hard to explain something when the ideas present themselves to you and you just know that they are the right ones. It’s hard to articulate; It’s more of a feeling somewhere in your body. I've been telling people I'm currently having a really chill midlife crisis. I've crossed a street, turned around, and am now looking at where I used to be. It looks both familiar and completely foreign.”
Musically, In The Drink sees Pierre evoking his usual influences like Pavement, Superchunk, The Flaming Lips, Jawbox, The Weakerthans, Fugazi, early Collective Soul, Braid, Archers Of Loaf, Sonic Youth, Swervedriver, Dinosaur Jr., Bruce Hornsby before he crossed paths with The Range, Sleater-Kinney, Nirvana, more Jawbox, Tom Waits, The Carpenters and Eddie Money, but through his own unique perspective and sung via his instantly recognizable tenor. From the quirky, anthemic pop of “Anchor” or “I Don't Know Why She Ran Away” to more moody, darker material such as “Moonbeam” (which features guest vocals from Jenny Owen Youngs) and the experimental closer “Goodnight Hiroyuki,” the album is Pierre at his most unfiltered and the results are sublime (even if it sounds nothing like Sublime). Justin asked me if that last part was a joke. I told him it was. He had to look up the band Sublime. He agrees. This album sounds nothing like the rock band Sublime.
“All of these songs turned out exactly how I heard them in my head, time and money were our only limitations,” Pierre says. “I don't understand how drums work so I'd write these parts that didn't make any sense to Josh or David, but they both loved them. They’d say things like, 'No drummer would ever write this... don’t change it!' David also helped translate the shit out of some of the more vague ideas I had but always keep my initial vision intact,” he adds, pausing. “I think I just need you to ask me more questions because I have no idea if anything I’m saying is helpful in any way, shape or form in regard to writing this bio.”
“I was afraid but now I'm ready.”
Ultimately regardless of what happens with In The Drink, Pierre is simply excited that he had the opportunity to make this album and in that spirit he's planning on making a video for each song and exploring these concepts in multiple mediums, something he always wanted to do in his previous act. “The songs are connected to the artwork and the artwork is connected to the videos and it's a crazy amount of work but it's also extremely validating as an artist,” he summarizes. “It all just comes back to trusting my gut instinct in the sense that there are all these branches that people can follow and interpret in different ways. I know how it all connects and comes together for me but that doesn’t mean that that’s the way it is for anyone else. You know? Does that make sense?” [Sighs.]