Not too long ago, Milk Crater (Sam Buck and Steven Gantenbein) had the chance to speak with Andrew McMahon (Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Jack’s Mannequin, Something Corporate) about founding the Dear Jack Foundation, spraining his ankle at Warped Tour, and the only way you will ever get to see “Konstantine” live.
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SG: Can you tell us a bit about the Dear Jack Foundation?
AM: Yeah, the foundation was sort of born out of the philanthropy that sprung up around my diagnosis back in 2005. I noticed that there was this groundswell of people who started stepping up and donating to charities that we had deemed “in lieu of flowers.” We realized we were generating a lot of dollars for people and organizations and thought maybe we could start a non-profit of our own that really focuses on causes that we feel strongly about. And that was the genesis of it. Over the past 10 years we’ve narrowed our focus to young adult and adolescent cancer victims, which is people who are diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 30 years of age. That was a realization in and of itself, just discovering how underserved this population is, so it was really sort of an obvious space for us to enter.
SB: One of the ways you focus on that age group is by granting scholarships. That’s not a usual path for a cancer based foundation. What’s your reasoning there?
AM: There’s a ton of reasons. When you’re an organization there’s a number of ways that you can allocate your money when you’re operating in say the “disease” space like we are. We’ve done a lot of great work with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. We’ve raised half a million dollars for them in the last 8 or 9 years, and that is sort of the feather-in-our-cap, but generating enough money to affect research in a positive way – you need millions and millions of dollars. So we sort of tailored our focus around initiatives that reach back and impact an individual’s life. We came into contact with this great organization called Cancer for College that delivers college scholarships to young adult survivors and patients and helps them shoulder the burden of their costs. These are families that have had to pay out of pocket for their care. We’ve been doing that for a few years and it’s been very rewarding seeing people who might struggle to be able to pay their tuition.
SG: That’s awesome! You guys are launching, on December 5th, a branch of the foundation that focuses on helping people transition during this really seminal part of their life. How did that come about?
AM: I think one of the things that I really started researching was how we can make an impact with the foundation on survivorship. There’s a lot of focus in the community on how to make things easier for people who are in the middle of treatment, which is, of course, very important work, but as an organization, what I want to do is look for things that we can do that aren’t already being done. I noticed that a real gap exists with survivorship issues. Especially, if you think about young adult cancer survivors. They return back to a world and their peers in a relatively serious state. They probably haven’t come up against something as traumatic and there’s just less to lean on than say you might have, when you’re a child with leukemia or a childhood cancer patient. Then you would have your family or have all of these people close to you. When you’re an older adult you may have experienced more or you may have friends and other peers that have gone through this. In this particular age range, you have a lot of people who are out on their own, just getting their first job, going to college, getting married, or whatever it is. They sort of end up bearing the burden of their survivorship on their own and are met with a lot of depression or survivor’s guilt, and stress. Our goal is to build a program that focuses on a holistic approach to health and well-being as you transition. We’re going to do a seminar where we teach breath-work, and meditation, and nutrition and talk about all of these issues that come along with survivorship., and try to get people to some baseline where they know what to look out for and how to get some help along the way if they need to.
SG: Was that idea born from your own personal experience?
AM: Yeah, absolutely. I spent a lot of years in….you know, I don’t want to paint it all as this negative experience, I had a lot of good times in there, but it was a confusing period of time because you’re obviously grateful that you have your life, but you also—there’s a lot of confidence issues that come along with those years and like I said, there’s bouts of depression and posttraumatic stress. I think a lot of people, after they’ve come out of treatment, they don’t want to burden people with this new psychological end that they’ve gone through, so a lot of people stay very quiet about it. As the years went on, I started realizing that this had happened to me. I started having that conversation and people were crawling out of the woodwork and saying: “Thank you for saying this” and “I felt the same way.” You get through something like that and people think that you should be in a position to re-enter the world and be productive and feel stronger, and I think it would be a great thing if in the next handful of years we’d be able to build some program to make that process easier for people.
SB: I’m sure you used music as a coping mechanism when going through your diagnosis and survivorship. Were there any songs or artists that you gravitated towards?
AM: Yeah. There were definitely some seminal records and songs along the way. You know, I had my “Chemo” and “Radiation” mixes with tons of artists and tons of music from around that time and I found sort of a solace in having those songs around me. On the personal side, I think having a record that I was really proud of—the first Jack’s Mannequin record: “Everything in Transit”—that was really a point on the horizon for me. Knowing that if I got well I could get back to work and play that record for people and get on tour, that was a big thing for me. But if you’re thinking of my own music, if you’re thinking of “The Glass Passenger,” that was a really hard record to make. The music that ended up on that record were the moments that I think I really dug into what that feeling was of being post-cancer and trying to get back to life. And I think that record was a huge mechanism for me in coping with what I was going though.
SG: Where did you get the names used in your Dear Jack EP?
AM: So “Dear Jack” was actually the first song I wrote moving away from Something Corporate and toward the idea some side project. It felt kind of a like a different thing than I had done in the past. It’s kind of a crazy, the Jack from that song became the namesake of Jack’s Mannequin and he, by pure coincidence, was actually a childhood leukemia survivor. So it became this bizarre, kismet kind of moment when I was diagnosed and just about to put out this record named after this guy. Then I ended up having the exact same cancer he had like 15 years before. So it was kind of this trippy thing. He was the brother of a good friend of mine in high school. And then “There, There Katie,” I wrote 2 years after. It was written for my sister, because she was going through a bit of a tough time. I would later find out she was going to be the donor for my transplant, and I was the one going through the hard time and she was helping me out. So it was sort of this circuitous chain of events that led to both of those songs.
SB: Anyone that has seen your recent live performances has probably noticed your unique set. Everything is covered in fake turf and there is a prominently placed fake goldfish bowl on your piano. Where did all that come from?
AM: It was one guy that I collaborate with. They build sets for bands and work on projects like at Burning Man. For playing Coachella, I just wanted this feeling of it being a little bit more surreal and bit more of an art piece, like playing the turf. We added these little gags as a sort of visual stimulus to go along with the music. And that’s been part of the ride of taking this record on the road and bringing the stage to life to keep people engaged. I wanted art in the concert environment to keep people off their phones and keep them on their toes a little bit. There’s like an extra element of theater which becomes a part of it. My crew probably wouldn’t thank me for it, but from the band side and the fan side, we enjoy it.
SB: It’s kind of hard not to be engaged when there’s a balloon with a detonator above your head!
AM: There’s a definite….don’t want to call it a detonator to scare the locals, it’s just a 9-volt battery that sends a charge to the balloons, but we decided to make the casings for them look a bit more dramatic for the sake of them being fan-operated. We wanted to try to add some drama.
SB: Speaking of drama, several times during your show you dramatically leap on to the piano. The crowd loves it, but I’ve got to know – have you ever botched the jump?
AM: Oh yeah. On Warped Tour in 2002 I sprained my ankle in a really, really bad way jumping on the piano and I was on crutches for the rest of Warped Tour. So yeah, that was bad. I mean, yeah. I’ve fallen off that thing more times than I can count, it’s not always a perfect science, that’s for sure.
SG: Do you find that the grass provides more traction?
AM: So it should, but the funny thing is that the first night it wasn’t actually taped down so I almost bit it really hard. It’s not a bad place to stand though, a bit more comfortable.
SB: Hopefully, at least a little padding maybe. If not traction, then at least a little padding. So then our final question – What is one thing you would ask anyone reading this to do in helping the fight against cancer?
AM: I don’t know if this is anything that any one person can provide, but for me it would be to make AYA (adolescent and young adult) wings in hospitals available for any young adult who is fighting cancer. To be around your peers when dealing with something like this is really essential to providing a space where doctors can actually see how treatments affect people in these age ranges. I think being here to kick start this movement to create adolescent and young adult wings the same way they have pediatric wings in hospitals – It’s starting to come together. We’ve seen a lot of movement recently. I think there’s a lot of hope on this recently that these patients will find hospitals where they’re being treated amongst their peers and with really targeted protocols. So that’s something I’m hopeful for.
SG: If I can sneak in one personal question – Can you give me any hints on when I may or may not be able to satisfy my 15-year-old self and see “Konstantine” live?
AM: Yeah there’s only one place that happens and that’s on 11/11 at the Dear Jack Benefit. So if you can find a ticket to that in Chicago, that’s it.