Justin Pierre: My Favorite Minnesotan

Music, rock music in particular, is one of the few art forms I have a great passion for as a consumer but not as a creator.  I’ve written comics and short stories, directed and performed in my material on stage, and even made some short films but I’ve never been in a band.  The closest I’ve come is performing in musicals, singing songs I didn’t much care for.  The exception was 1776 but I couldn’t even hit my harmony part in “The Egg”.

There are several bands and performers I’ve put on a pedestal starting in high school (Public Enemy, REM, They Might Be Giants, Social Distortion) to college (The Beatles, Green Day, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, The Replacements) and into adulthood (The White Stripes, Ben Folds, Chuck Berry).  I could keep going but once I start lists, it’s hard to stop.

Since late 2008, I’ve been laid off, looking for work, starting my own sales business supporting three clients, getting up to speed as an independent recruiter (with my old client as a partner), continuing to work on being a writer when I grow up, and maintaining the dad/husband thing.

While music has always been important to me, those experiences made it vital to my being.  It’s always playing when I’m working (and not on the phone).  I listed some all-time greats above but there’s an artist I’ve listened to more than any of them in the last four years: Justin Pierre.  Justin is best known as the lead singer and songwriter of Motion City Soundtrack.  He’s also in the band Farewell Continental and is recording with a third, The Company We Keep, right now.  I think he’s trying to beat Jack White in the “How Many Bands Can I Be In?” contest.

I discovered Motion City Soundtrack by accident.  I was flipping through On Demand music videos on my TV and misread their name as “Motor City Soundtrack”.  I hit play thinking they must be a new Detroit group (they’re from Minneapolis).  The song was “LGFUAD”.  The reason the name is spelled in letters is because the “F” stands for a word you can probably guess.

I’m glad I discovered that song first because it’s a good example of the tightrope Pierre walks in his best songs.  This is how it opens:
Let’s get fucked up and die!
I’m speaking figuratively of course.
Like the last time that I committed suicide.
Social suicide. 

I love how he starts with two over-dramatic statements then backs off them right away.  The song is all about insecurity and not being able to find your footing in life.  I’ve been there and remember all-too-well bluffing with fake bravado (“I’m a crazy rebel, but not really”).  Frankly, that’s what most of the songs on that album, Commit This To Memory, are about.  That’s not an uncovered area in popular music, especially during the pop-punk years MCS came up in.  A lot of the post-Green Day bands sang about misery or being screwed up because that’s the template they were filling.  The difference here is Justin seems to be expressing his actual feelings.  There’s an air of authenticity to MCS music missing in many of their peers.

I should also mention, in deference to the entire band, that the music itself is more ambitious too.  Tony Thaxton is a great drummer and very popular with my four-year-old musician-in-training, Evan.  When we got him a little drum set for his birthday, he made sure he was playing with his arms crossed, just like Tony on his YouTube videos.

Motion City Soundtrack has released four albums and their last one, My Dinosaur Life, came out in 2010.  It’s their best and I think it was well-timed with how I felt at the time.  That’s not to say I was going through the exact things the songs describe.  While they cover topics such as devastating splits (“Her Words Destroyed My Planet”), substance abuse (“Delirium”), and being afraid of intimacy (“Stand Too Close”), I had been through heavy self-doubt and the realization I’d spent the last year way too angry.  His experiences are more extreme than mine but the feelings come from the same place.

I hope that doesn’t sound depressing because one of Justin’s saving graces is that his lyrics don’t wallow in their own misery.  He’s not in love with being unhappy (I’m looking at you, Morrissey).  In fact, My Dinosaur Life gives you a sense of someone working for something better, especially the song A Lifeless Ordinary.  That’s why I connected with it as strong as I did.

I think the band is often dismissed by people my age (and, ironically, Justin’s age) as just another pop-punk group.  Their loss.  I’ve heard people complain that we don’t get many albums like Weezer’s Pinkerton anymore but here’s a band working at that level now, especially compared to what Weezer’s done since.

Last year, Justin’s other bandFarewell Continental, released their first full-length album, Hey, Hey Pioneers.  While not a confessional album like My Dinosaur Life, it’s grade-A stuff.  I wrote a review for it last year.  I’m looking forward to hearing what he does with The Company We Keep.  The group’s female lead singer is a Detroiter, so it does come full circle.

As I’ve headed into my mid-thirties (which is what I consider thirty-six and I won’t say late-thirties until I’m thirty-nine and a half), I don’t feel the same level of hero-worship I used to for writers, directors, and musicians.  I am very appreciative to Justin Pierre, though, for giving some crazy years a solid soundtrack.

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