“Why Would You Pay Money To Meet A Human Being?”
This question stood emblazoned in huge, all-caps print on the Maine‘s merch tent at Warped Tour 2016, poking fun at the countless bands who have charged for meet-and-greet packages in the tour’s recent history. It’s part of an extensive, if tongue-in-cheek branding campaign that defined the summer for the Arizona band.
“As music fans first and foremost, we would never—when we were in Brazil not too long ago, we saw that Avril Lavigne was doing meet and greets where there’s like six feet between you and her and you can’t touch her and it’s like four hundred bucks,” recalls frontman John O’Callaghan from the Holmdel, New Jersey date of the 2016 Warped Tour.
“It’s bullshit,” interjects bassist Garrett Nickelsen.
“We thought that’s just ridiculous,” continues O’Callaghan. “She’s just a person, why would you put yourself through that? We’re just trying to convey something that’s a bit abnormal. This isn’t necessarily a real job, even though it kind of is now, for us, at least. I think we’re trying to communicate the fact that it can be that way for everybody else. We’re just normal cats.”
When the band hit the stage this summer, they came out in pristine, freshly-pressed white dress shirts and matching blue slacks, playing their tightly-rehearsed set of sun-drenched, summer pop-rock to enormous crowds on the tour’s main stage. Behind them, their backdrop reads, “You Are Watching A Band Called The Maine.” It’s a testament to their authenticity; by reducing their branding to a minimum, the band connects personally with the crowd and makes the whole ordeal about one thing only: the music.
“I mean, it’s definitely funny in our eyes,” says Nickelsen of the quirky outfits and bold backdrops. “But we just wanted to stop taking things so seriously. There are so many people out here that take things so seriously. Like they go up and they have the speech that they’re giving, which is just like, whatever, dude. [Laughs.] If you have a point to prove, cool, but you don’t have to say the same thing everyday.”
While damn near every band in the alternative music scene continues to use Warped Tour as a way of pushing a new record and selling overpriced and tacky Gildan shirts with questionable designs, the Maine’s aura of authenticity during this past summer was a refreshing departure from the norm. Warped Tour is a simulacrum of a punk rock ethos that continues to prove harder and harder to find, and the Maine’s deliberate attempts to undercut the façade shows how far they’ve come as a band—and as people—since their 2008 Warped Tour debut.
“I think the work ethic stays the same and so does the importance of having to grind it out,” says O’Callaghan of his band’s rise to the main stage from humble beginnings in a van back in 2008. “You have to take advantage of the opportunity. But I think we’re also far more comfortable in our own skin nowadays, and that’s important for us to differentiate from everything else going on.”
Fans of the band already know this to be true: after getting their start with 2008’s infectious, synthy, hook-heavy Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop and inking a multi-album contract with Warner Music Group, the Maine stopped writing pop-punk and dove deep into a vein of tried and true American rock ‘n’ roll. 2010’s Black and White focuses on guitar-driven songwriting and as the title suggests, explores a direct foil to the “neon” pop-punk scene of the late aughts. 2011’s Pioneer stands on its own as a cohesive indie rock record, and plays against the concept of marketability with a bearded, lipstick-clad lumberjack as its cover art. With 2013’s Forever Halloween, the band digs deep in the trenches of the psychedelic movement of the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in a dark, moody, and downright strange record for a band that initially hit the pop-punk scene with songs boasting titles like “Girls Do What They Want.”
“I think Forever Halloween is when we became a band officially, and American Candy is our first album,” says O’Callaghan. “That’s how I view it.”
“I love [Forever Halloween], and I think we needed to do it,” says Nickelsen. “We were headed down a path that we needed something like that to just know we could do it. We can go make a weird, trippy, ‘60s or ‘70s-sounding album, but still have people that have been fans of us for 10 years now still appreciate it. And I think with Pioneer, and even with Black and White—from Black and White to Pioneer to Forever Halloween—those three albums are us pushing ourselves. We were at the point where we needed to do whatever we wanted, and I think American Candy is us saying, ‘Okay, we proved our point; we’re a band, now let’s write fun songs,’ because we were just happy again. Not that we weren’t happy with Forever Halloween, but I think we needed to get something off our chests. Especially when you consider that we were so young when we started, we didn’t know anything—”
O’Callaghan interjects, coyly: “For the record, we still don’t know anything.” He smiles.
Garrett laughs and continues, “Right, but we didn’t know how this worked. It just happened so fast, we just wrote songs. And I’m not bashing Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, or any of the albums, but it’s different now. We had to learn and grow.”
And with that, the band skipped Forever Halloween entirely on setlists over the summer, likely due to the record’s dark vibe clashing with the careless summertime energy of the Warped Tour. The band remains proud of the record, but they understand the time and place; for the same reason, fan favorites from Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop were included in the setlist, leading to some of the biggest crowd response. I mentioned this relationship to the early material, citing Yellowcard’s Warped Tour swan song, which featured frontman Ryan Key delivering an impassioned speech on the band’s memory of their first tour on Ocean Avenue, before playing cuts from that record.
“I don’t think you can ignore it,” muses O’Callaghan. I think for a while we did. We wanted to, and it was one of those things where we were a bit embarrassed to a certain degree. Because, again, we didn’t fully grasp what was going on. I think now that we’re older and we’ve seen it through, you learn to embrace it. You see, out here, we’re playing a few songs from that album and people dig that. I think it would be kind of foolish not to embrace it.”
“Right, and I think we do a good thing of changing it up,” says Nickelsen. “If something’s really uncomfortable for us, we have this way of doing it where we can kind of do it differently. Like for Can’t Stop, we don’t have a bunch of tracks going. To do something where it grooves the same and it feels good, I like playing some of those songs now. But if we went up there and it was like, [he shakes his hands and makes bass-y sounds with his mouth, imitating the produced nature of the Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop songs], I just wouldn’t feel good about it. I think we have a good way of making things fit. And not in a way where people say things like ‘Oh, they totally switched it and it sucked!'”
In addition to recognizing the fan demand for older material at gigs, O’Callaghan maintains that they still have personal connections to the songs on that record. “My dad’s favorite song of ours is ‘We All Roll Along,’ which was on our first record,” he divulges. “And there was a bit there for a minute where I didn’t like that stuff. But he said, ‘You can’t shy away from it, you have to step into that and fully accept that’s what happened. And some people dug it and some people didn’t, but you can only move forward.’ And ever since he said that, I don’t just turn away from it.”
“I think it just goes back to like, we’re not trying to be the coolest guys at the party, we’re just trying to be some dudes,” says Nickelsen.
Callaghan continues, “Yeah, we’re just trying to be invited.”
Last year, the band bounced back with American Candy, a pop-filled return to their carefree roots that displays a new confidence in both songwriting and personal identity. The band will play one final show this year, a sold out event in the smallest room of New York City’s Webster Hall, before buckling down to work on new material. The band has already begun writing their new record.
“I remember being terrified before American Candy,” recalls Nickelsen. “Now, I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I’m super confident, and I’m really excited. I really want to make something perfect. I want to make the album that when people look back, they’ll say, ‘That’s the one.’ We want to make this the album, where it flows right and feels good.”
The band, true to their authentic roots, aren’t worried about the impact of radio trends or figuring out the keys to mainstream success. “I think a big thing for me is forgetting about the tempo of things, and focusing more on the groove of things,” claims O’Callaghan. “I’ve been listening to a lot of the Clash as of late, and reggae has been so influencial, as well as the punk music, and just music in general. I think that’s an avenue—I mean, we’re not gonna make a reggae album nor a Clash album, but for us, it’s important. It’s beyond just thinking stuff like beats per minute…so we’re focusing on stuff that truly brings us happiness.”
‘American Candy’ is available now via the band’s own label, 8123.
Photos via Mike Wilson Photography.