When Motion City Soundtrack formed in Minneapolis in 1997 there was a sense of fun that threaded through everything that involved the band. That youthful glee, the feeling that everything was exciting and anything was possible, has been inevitably dampened over the years. On their sixth album, Panic Stations, MCS found that feeling again. The process of creating the new songs, which open a new chapter in the band’s storied career, was based on instinct and openness, a methodology that resulted in a buoyant, impassioned record.
“When we were all younger it was like we just wrote and made music,” frontman Justin Pierre says. “We would get together in the practice space and just start playing. Somebody would start and everyone else would join in. And we started overthinking everything slowly over time. This was about trying to forget everything we’d learned and going back to the fresh, new feeling. Once the music is written and recorded, you can get back to the other, more complicated aspects of being in a band.”
Panic Stations was recorded in June of 2014 after MCS finished touring on their last album, Go. The band had begun writing the music while on Warped Tour, initially just for fun, and eventually found themselves with a collection of songs. There was no preconceived vision or theme, just the underlying goal to create music the band enjoyed playing together in one room. To help capture the energy of MCS’ live show, the band enlisted producer John Agnello, who’s helmed albums by Dinosaur Jr., Jawbox, Walt Mink and Sonic Youth. “John made records that caught our attention decades ago and have continued to inspire us to this day,” Matt Taylor says. “From the first conversation that we had with him we were excited and intrigued by his energy and ideas. He was able to remove us from our comfort zone and encourage us to track our album live in two short weeks.”
Agnello suggested the band record the tracks for the album live – something the band had never done before. “Even fans have said we sound better live than we do on record,” Pierre says. “So we decided to try it and capture that kind of feeling. We rehearsed the shit out of these songs. We knew them and we played them over and over again. We recorded them in 14 days, which is the shortest amount of time we’ve spent on a record.” That experience, which took place at Minnesota’s Underbelly North recording studio (formerly known as Pachyderm Studio where Nirvana recorded In Utero), was like a catharsis for the band, liberating them from any stagnancy that has built up in the past few years. “Going forward I hope to record everything live,” Pierre notes. “It was so much fun. And there are lovely mistakes that happen – they sound so good you just want to keep them.”
The final album, named after nautical structures that act as warning posts in the oceans, centers on not overthinking, something Pierre and his bandmates have a tendency to do. The singer wasn’t necessarily trying to convey anything specific in his lyrics, which are typically insightful and narratively wry. Instead, he wrote whatever came to him and then looked backward to see what topics arose. Many of the songs reference water and the ocean, and there is an overarching idea of letting go and not being immobilized by your own thoughts. Pierre also drew on an array of literary influences in his lyrics. Rollicking number “Heavy Boots” pulls from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and A Million Little Pieces, and if you listen closely to the album familiar aspects from pop culture are apparent.
The music itself is invigorated and propulsive. “Lose Control” builds into an intense, emotionally raw chorus that mirrors Pierre’s plea to relinquish control while “TKO” pares the music down to its lively rock ‘n’ roll core, focusing on the deft combination of guitars and rhythms and revealing the fervor of MCS’ live performance. “Over It Now,” a raucous standout, amps up that performative energy, reminding fans of the band’s infectious enthusiasm for the stage, which the band bought on tour recently for their successful 10 year anniversary tour of Commit This To Memory.
Panic Stations is as exciting to listen to as it was for the musicians to make. The feeling of their renewed pleasure for the craft resonates through each note and lyric, leaving you just as inspired as they sound. “We realized this is so much fun,” Pierre says. “We’re just having fun again. It’s not that we weren’t before, but everything seems so fresh and new on this album. I feel like Go is the end of one thing and Panic Stations is the beginning of another, and it’s exciting to get to open the next chapter of Motion City Soundtrack’s career.”