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How Justin Courtney Pierre cheated death and fell in love with life again

A press shot of Justin Pierre
(Image credit: Epitaph Records)

Justin Courtney Pierre had a very different 2020 planned. He started the year reuniting with his band, Motion City Soundtrack, for a spate of shows in the US dubbed “Don’t Call It A Comeback”. They were keen not to raise expectations too high – they had, after all, broken up with some farewell shows in mid-2016. This was to be a brief love affair of a tour, a sojourn before the members returned to other projects and the demands of fatherhood. 

Pierre had planned to release a full-length record; his second as a solo artist. Then, shortly after everything fell apart for everyone else in the world, Pierre had a serious accident.

“At the end of March, I was staying up way too late and getting up way too early,” he tells me over Zoom from his home in Minneapolis. “I passed out one night in the bathroom. I fell into the shower and I hit my back perfectly on the tub and I hit my neck and my head on the other side. I couldn’t think.” Luckily, his wife found him. “It was two in the morning so I ended up going to the emergency room, and it turned out I had a concussion.” After the accident, he was basically bedridden for months. “I couldn’t do anything. They put me on crazy drugs and I basically just wanted to die,” he says, adding that he had to wait until July to finally have surgery on his spine. 

“Then it was another few months of hell just trying to learn how to walk again.”

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Pierre has been recovering since July, and by December, he was feeling pretty good “more or less”. When we speak, he seems back to his animated self, and he reassures me that he feels “85% better" – but that he’s still frustrated that his plans were so drastically derailed; even more so than others in a nightmarish year. “I wanted to make a record, I wanted to do all this stuff in 2020, and I just didn’t even have a brain,” he laughs. 

His solo EP An Anthropologist On Mars, a follow-up to 2018 debut In The Drink, is due to be released on March 12, but Pierre is keen to reiterate that this isn’t how it was meant to go.

After the Motion City Soundtrack tour closed in February, Pierre flew to LA to record his album, planning to do it in pieces. He only got the first part finished. “I remember seeing the news while I was over there at the end of March and I was flying back and I was so nervous. Within a couple of weeks everything shut down,” he says. With the likelihood of recording the entire album seeming slim, Brett Gurewitz, the owner of Epitaph records, suggested releasing what he had as an EP. Pierre resisted: “I was like, 'No, I’ve got a plan, I want to do the plan'. Then I hurt my back and I was out forever, and we were mixing it and I was just out of my mind. I loved the mixes, but I don’t know if I was in the right frame of mind,” he confesses.

Eventually, of course, he relented, agreeing to release the five tracks he had recorded as an EP. It's a universal truth that getting anything done right now is an achievement – still, it took Pierre, who jokingly calls himself neurotic, some convincing to realise that everything was totally out of his control. “It’s like picking a fight with the universe thinking you’ve got a chance,” he laughs. “I’m so slow. It takes me a long time to come around to ideas. So even with Brett telling me to put it out as an EP, I just wanted to hold onto the stuff I had recorded until I had everything exactly how I wanted. 

"If anything, I think that the last year has taught me to let go of a lot of old ideas about the way things are.”

As we speak, Pierre is in good spirits, finally feeling almost in control after a year spiralling out of it – though the last few months at home with his family have been a learning curve. “I think there’s a bit of suspended adolescence that occurs with being in a band and being constantly somewhere else," he says. "So when you are stuck in one spot, you become aware of all of the things that you’re not good at." It's also caused him to realise the burden of caring for their family usually falls on his wife. “I think, unfortunately, as hip and as cool as I think I am in terms of splitting things, my wife definitely does 90% of the work in the relationship. It’s been a really good experience to actually feel a minutiae of what she goes through every time I leave for a tour. I welcome it.”

Every so often we’re interrupted by his daughter, a sweet five-year-old who ostensibly needs something but seems to want to be included. Pierre says that a large part of his recent education has come from her. “There is no room for yourself when you have to battle a five-year-old maniac and everything she wants to show you and play with,” he laughs, adding that he even managed to get a full eight hours of sleep recently. He’s struggling to balance his own work with his fatherly duties, which has given him a new understanding of his wife’s day to day. “I’m still kind of a piece of shit, but I’m working towards being less of one,” He laughs. “There’s been a lot of time for introspection.”

An Anthropologist On Mars treads similar ground lyrically as Motion City Soundtrack: neuroses, self-deprecation, not fitting in. A theme of panic over time’s endless march runs through Illumination, and I draw similarities to Motion City’s Days Will Run Away, a sombre ode to time passing and a farewell to the band. “I can definitely see that," Pierre says. "To me, I think Days Will Run Away is a lot more depressing. I feel like Illumination is oddly uplifting.” 

I concede that the music is upbeat – power chords and synthesisers beneath rapid-fire vocals – but the lyrics move inward. That’s his style: “I love sad stuff. I love it so much more than happy stuff. It’s weird to be happy-ish and write sad things. I’ve found beauty in the sadness that I found overwhelming when I was younger.”

The candour and vulnerability is part of what makes Motion City special to a lot of people, and it’s likely what will connect them to Pierre’s solo work. On Motion City’s debut I Am The Movie and follow-up Commit This To Memory, Pierre writes about his struggles with precision and humour. By underscoring that honesty with Moog synths and power chords, Motion City made feeling weird not just relatable, but something to dance to. Pierre is similarly candid in conversation, sharing that he’s used the last year to investigate just what it is that makes him feel different. “There’s something amiss, and through my life I’ve been like, maybe that’s why everyone is frustrated with me all the time,” he laughs. An Anthropologist On Mars pokes and prods at those familiar questions, proving that the quest to understand ourselves is a lifelong one. 

While Pierre is still generous with his feelings, he’s adamant that being so open was never intentional. “When I was younger I had all these feelings and I just had to share them with people whether they wanted to hear them or not and I didn’t think to censor myself. It never occurred to me,” he says. "Handfuls of people over the years have given me far too much credit for being so open about things, but the truth of the matter is I never thought not to be.” He started writing more self-consciously for a while, but after working with his friend Tommy on side project Farewell Continental, Pierre found an easy, more instinctive way to approach his music. “I think it brought me to a point where I trust myself,” he says.

Pierre didn’t have the year he intended to, and this isn’t the record that he wanted to release. After over 20 years with Motion City Soundtrack – a band that means so much to so many – he still doesn’t have a lot of faith in himself. “I have no problem admitting that I don’t know what I’m doing,” he laughs, likening his instinctual methodology of songwriting to a “puzzle”. 

He’s willing to admit, at least, that he’s a good “ideas person”, but that's about as far as it goes. “I am so afraid. I want to be so much better than I feel like I am,” he says, calling himself a “fraud”. While it’s typical of the man who brought us Attractive Today to be so self-deprecating, I wonder if the answer he’s looking for is in his own music: nobody, no matter how much you look up to them, has any fucking idea what they’re doing either.

Justin Pierre's new EP, An Anthropologist On Mars, is out on March 12 via Epitaph Records