It's not a big deal, but Motion City Soundtrack guitarist Joshua Cain would like the public to know that the "Autobots" reference on "Calling All Cops," the fifth track on their third full-length album, Even If It Kills Us, was not inspired by the dreadful Transformers movie that was released last summer.
"That kind of bummed me out," Cain says. "We weren't trying to be topical. (The song was) going back to the original Transformers from the 1980s."
Indeed, Pop Tarts also pop up in MCS singer Justin Pierre's lyrics this time around. As with any self-respecting, so-called Pop Punk band in the paradigm of Weezer and Blink-182, geeky pop culture references have always been par for the course.
Yet MCS claims with some justification to have a little more emotional depth than most of their genre compatriots, even though they proudly list Fall Out Boy and All American Rejects as friends and peers. Pierre's vocals can be fun-loving but are seldom glib. Even in the faster tunes they betray a certain earnestness of feeling.
"We never tried to be Pop Punk; that's just what we got labeled," Cain says. "The Rejects are a little more straightforward; their guitarist is a big 1980s Metal guy. Whereas we go more to the early 1990s, to bands like Superchunk, Fugazi and Dinosaur Jr."
MCS fans will find much on the new album familiar.
The songs are as buoyant and likeable as ever, with Weezer-like background vocals (sans the dog-howl goofiness), Jesse Johnson's Moog zipping in a manner reminiscent of The Cars and Pierre's voice slipping agreeably in and out of a mild falsetto. But the album also offers up a few surprises.
First, there's the entirely piano-driven track "The Conversation," followed a few tracks later by the ethereal, antiwar "Hello Helicopter," in which Pierre's voice manages to approximate Peter Gabriel in his climactic moments.
"Those were different for us," Cain says. " 'The Conversation' literally transcribes a conversation from Justin's life. As for 'Hello Helicopter,' that was a big stretch. We're not political. I mean, we're political in our own lives but not usually in our music. We're not preachy. 'Hello Helicopter' turned out to be kind of an antiwar song from an apathetic standpoint, where you feel like you should have done something but didn't."
While it's usually the sophomore effort that carries the momentous pressure of living up to the hype and promise of the band's initial efforts, Cain said they actually felt more pressure with their third.
"We felt more pressure because this is our second album with this lineup, our second album as this band," he says. "It was also the first album with multiple producers and multiple studios at different times. We would have this great atmosphere with one and then we'd move on and it kind of threw us out of whack. … It was also Justin's first time sober."
As with many bands, each record represents where the band's headspace is at the time.
"Music is therapy, a chance to air our dirty laundry," Cain says. "The second album (Commit This To Memory) was really angry and dark and with the third one we're in a different place. Justin is finding himself and I pretty much live vicariously through Justin's lyrics. We were similar in our substance-abuse problems. And this album is (the culmination) of going through the worst crap imaginable with your best friend, short of dying, and coming out OK at the other side."
Yet despite these emotional outpourings, Cain still endures the eternal accusation of selling out, which he finds baffling.
"Yeah, I sold out of living in my garage!" he exclaims. "You can be on the most independent label there is and you'll still get that. On every record, there's somebody who doesn't like something."
The idea of selling out as it pertains to MCS might seem a little strange, given that Pierre has referred to the band as "groupie repellent," branding himself and his band members as old, unattractive and unhip.
"We are frumpy dudes," Cain says. "It's not that we have a low opinion of ourselves, it's just a fact. We're not typical Rock stars. We don't have backstage parties with lots of blow or take a bunch girls back into our bus. We just hang out and try to be as human with our fans as we can."
In fact, Cain is the rare person who enjoyed it (long before he witnessed the process from the other side) when his favorite bands went mainstream.
"I did feel a little resentful when the Pixies opened for U2 and having to go see Sonic Youth at a 15,000-seat arena," Cain says. "But I also loved the fact that I could say I had seen these bands in a small club with 150 people."
Of course, as we all know, things went downhill from there.
"Around 1999, everything dried up," Cain says. "Britney and the Backstreet Boys and all that shit took over the world. But then later we got bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and The Get Up Kids, who were playing this real moody Pop music in small clubs and that's where we got started."
Yet it's interesting to note that despite the band's seeming upward mobility, Cain can't help talking about the band's future in fatalistic terms.
"That's a bad habit of ours," he says. "We're thankful for everything we've gotten. We wouldn't be unhappy if it all went away because we've had such a good time. But I don't see us stopping anytime soon."
MOTION CITY SOUNDTRACK performs Thursday at Bogart's with Mae, Anberlin and Metro Station. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.