Mike Mains & the Branches’ sophomore full-length, Calm Down, Everything is Fine, evokes the high-strung presentation of Brand New, but with complementary indie rock sensibilities more along the lines of Sea Wolf. Its 11 tracks are consistently dynamic and lively, ranging from danceable to outright somber, and the album itself avoids dwelling too long in one key.
Lead single “Noises” is straightforward rock, but it fits comfortably among acoustic ballads and poppy, radio-ready anthems, with everything neatly tied together by themes of faith, uncertainty, and reassurance.
Calm Down, Everything is Fine is currently available in digital format to those who pledged donations via the band’s fundraising page, and pre-orders for the LP and CD are available as well here, with an official release slated for February 18. Most recently, the band performed a few of the album’s tracks in a live session for AudioTree. Additionally, they’ll tour with Detroit dance-pop outfit Flint Eastwood starting February 15 in Pontiac, MI.
Mike Mains & the Branches spoke to Substream about Calm Down, Everything is Fine’s numerous, time-consuming setbacks and the beacons of optimism that eventually led to the album’s completion.
Substream Magazine: I read a little bit about Coreluv and its mission of building safe and supportive orphanages. Can you talk about your experiences in working with Coreluv in Haiti? What motivated you to get involved with the organization?
Mike Mains: Coreluv is a really incredible organization. We did a show with them about two years ago with their president, Mike Reiszner. He and I really hit it off. I just remember telling him that night, “I feel like we’re supposed to be connected.” It was just a few months later that he invited us to go over to Haiti with them. Shannon and I flew over. I had never done anything like that. Shannon had some experience with it. Our first night there, we go to an orphanage, and there’s literally 45 cute little munchkin orphans that are just about to burst through these doors, they’re so excited to see us. None of them know us. They have no idea who we are, but they jump in Shannon and my arms. It wrecked us, man. I think more than anything it really made me aware of the fact that there are people hurting that need resources and food and shelter and love, you know?
Shannon Mains: I like the organization because, of course they’re helping orphans, but they also had a deaf school, because a lot of people who have special needs like that in Haiti, are usually the first to get cast out of schools. So yeah, they had a school for the deaf where they taught them trades and crafts. They had a bakery there, and also provided clean water for the town that they were a part of. It wasn’t just caring for orphans and letting them go; it was caring for orphans but also giving them a purpose and giving them a direction in their life.
SM: Did those experiences inspire any of the lyrical content on Calm Down, Everything is Fine?
MM: For the most part, Calm Down was already written, but it drastically influenced the artwork. I would say the artwork that is on our cover, the color scheme, I remember being over there and seeing the colors. Everything was super vibrant. I just thought, “I really want to integrate this into our artwork. I see Coreluv and those experiences surfacing more on our third record.
SM: You met your goal in crowd funding Calm Down, Everything is Fine with more than 800 pledges. Did the amount of support meet or exceed your expectations?
Nate Wethy: Yeah.
SM: It exceeded it.
NW: On the pledge site, it says we got 120 percent of our goal, so that alone means we’ve exceeded what we expected. And it’s crazy to us. I don’t know. It feels weird. We’ve spent the past week putting together all the pledges. Everyone says the shipping part of putting that stuff together is the worst part, but honestly, I’m having the most fun doing that. All these people helped us out. This is totally worth our time, putting this crap together.
SM: With 10 percent of all donations that exceed your original goal being donated to Coreluv, how much have you raised for the organization so far?
NW: I don’t know the actual number.
SM: I think it’s like, if we raised 35 or 40K, it’s between 3,500 and 4,000 so far. And Mike and I give to them personally. But yeah, it’s really fun to be able to help people, because people helped us.
SM: At what point in the writing process for this album did you decide to start a fundraiser rather than pursue a record label?
MM: When we couldn’t get a record label to sign us (laughs). We’ve had several deals come across our table, none of which ever felt right. We just thought, “We’ll never say no to the right deal,” but everything we’d seen felt too restrictive. It never really allowed us to flourish as a band. It just kind of felt like, “We’re going to be stuck with a ceiling above us for 15 years,” you know? I think we just had this boldness that, no matter what happens, our fans are going to back us up. We might not at this point be Kings of Leon, but what we know for sure is that we have an incredibly loyal fan base, and I’m confident that anytime we want to make a record, we’ll be able to just by the loyalty of our fans alone.
SM: Sites like Pledge Music and Kickstarter are growing increasingly popular in funding creative projects. What are your thoughts on crowd funding, especially as it compares to working with a label?
SM: I think it’s a really cool opportunity to see — not in a condescending way — but to have your fans really put their money where their mouth is, so to speak. You can say you really like a band, but to be that band, and then to see those people responding to something like that…Whether it’s bringing cookies to a show or giving us five or ten dollars to make a record, I think seeing that your fan base is more than just a group of people who believe in you and that’s a support group, it’s almost like a family. It’s really cool. After we did our pledge, we listened to the Amanda Palmer TED talk on crowd funding, saying that the way that music is going, it’s not, “How do we get people to buy me things,” but, “How do we get people to experience and how do we get music to people?” I think crowd funding is a really unique, beautiful way to do that.
SM: Not having a record label to back you, did that add additional pressure to the recording process?
NW: Honestly, I feel like it took away from it. We’re just doing our own thing. We don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations but our own and our fans’.
SM: I think it was a little stressful at first, because we didn’t decide, while we were recording it. We started it and hadn’t even talked about Kickstarter. We were like, “I’m sure a really awesome deal will come along.” But then deals came along but they weren’t awesome, like Mike was saying. They were not something we were interested in signing our lives away for. I think, for us, it was really like a, “Well, let’s hope this works out and we find money somehow, because now we owe this person a lot.”
MM: I think the greatest triumph in the entirety of the process is our fans. We took this huge risk. We made Calm Down, Everything is Fine twice, almost three times if you count pre-production and all the time that we spent writing it and the transformation of songs from beginning to end. We spent over 10 grand making the record the first time, and all three of us were sitting in a van together in New York City, and listened to it. We couldn’t cry because we were so pissed off. We just knew that it wasn’t right. For us, people were like, “God, dude, you’re taking so long.” And our thought was like, “Yeah. Brand New also took four years to put out a record, because it just wasn’t right.” I’m not saying we’re Brand New; when we announce tours, they don’t sell out in less than a minute. But we absolutely had to be proud of and had to believe in our record, so if it cost 10 grand or 20 grand or 30 grand or 40 grand, we were not going to settle until the three of us could walk out of the studio and know that we gave it everything.
SM: Because how could we ask our fans to support something that we couldn’t even back? We were glad that we arrived at that place eventually.
SM: Do you think that the early version of Calm Down, Everything is Fine will eventually see the light of day in one form or another?
SM: I don’t think so (laughs).
MM: I’ll do everything I can for that not to happen.
NW: It’s not that much different, but there’s a lot of stuff that just didn’t sound good, didn’t sound right.
SM: The quality.
NW: Unfortunately, with that, you had to redo it all. It is what it is.
SM: You described the creative process for this album as “long and grueling.” What other challenges accounted for the delays in getting it finished?
MM: It was a culmination of so many different circumstances. This is basically what happened: We go down to Atlanta. We record for over a month. We pack up. All three of us agreed, we aren’t going to listen to this for a month. We’re going to decompress. We’re going to detach ourselves from it so we listen with fresh ears. That month passes, we listen to it, we hate it. We decide we have to start over. We have a full tour scheduled from the beginning of the year through the end of May, basically. We make the decision to redo the entire record, so we’re touring, and then routing tour dates with two, three, four day gaps in the route. Losing sleep, busting our tails during those off days to record and track as much as we can. Then Matt Hoopes, our producer, is also laying down guitar tracks. He actually got Zac Farro to come in and lay down drum tracks for the entire record off of the scratch tracks of the record that we made. So we weren’t even there. He just tracked everything to a click while listening to all of our old scratch tracks from the first time we recorded. It was organized chaos, and I don’t ever want to make another record like this ever again.
NW: It was super unconventional. We like the idea of being there when our stuff’s being recorded. The fact that, for all of the drums and a lot of the guitars, we weren’t there for it… It’s like you’re sending us these tracks that you spent hours on and there’s a chance we might not like it. And that happens a lot. Like, “We don’t like this, sorry.” But if we were in the studio, we could’ve said, “No, let’s do something else.” But we’re not. We were in New York City or wherever the heck we were, touring. It’s a super long process when you’re not in the studio, having to make up time here and there, find time to get in. It takes a while.
SM: How much did your home, be it Texas or Michigan, influence the writing on Calm Down, Everything is Fine?
MM: So much. Nate, Shannon, and I — Shannon and I got married while writing and making the record — we were all just living together as a family. We would wake up, have coffee, have fellowship around the house, go swimming, take kayak trips… We’d record or just demo and write throughout the day, and then at night, probably have too much wine, sometimes, and steak and cheese and all these dinners. It was really cool and beautiful. I think it was a holy time. What I love about the picture of the three of us on the diving board [from the album’s cover art] is — our artist actually got that from the Seattle municipal archives — the three kids are terrified. We happen to also be three grownups that are also terrified. What I love, excuse my French, is they’re on a diving board about to jump up, and all of them are thinking, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” And I think that speaks into so much of where we are, where we’re still at, and what the process of making this record was. Even down to the three different colors. Nate, Shannon, and I are three individuals, but together we are a whole, and we all fit together. We all bring something unique and beautiful to the table. There is this common understanding that we don’t have it figured out. I think our relationships and our family and the record and the art is sort of a celebration of all of that.
SM: How have lineup changes since your last album affected your current songwriting process, if at all?
MM: It made it a lot easier for me (laughs). I don’t have as many people to fight with. Nate and Shannon are really brilliant, and I think when we work on songs together, they’re really tough on me. They don’t want to play something unless they believe in it. So I would say they’re the most difficult filtering process for any creative thing that I’ve ever been a part of, but it also is amazing because the end result usually ends up being really great.
SM: The title track on Calm Down, Everything is Fine imagines a personal conversation with Jesus Christ. Does the title of the record have direct religious connotations, and if not, where did you derive the meaning of the title from?
NW: Short answer, no.
MM: The entire record is, honestly, about a lot of my friends whose wives cheated on them, and the sense of brokenness and hell that they all went through. Honestly, I think “Calm down, everything is fine” — I define it almost with a wink: “Calm down, everything is fine, but the honest answer is, actually, it’s not.” Jesus Christ is a representation of the fact that our world is broken and needs redemption. For us, when we say, “Calm down, everything is fine,” it’s accepting the idea that we live in an incredibly broken place. I think we just need to celebrate those beautiful, tiny moments of joy that are somehow able to seep through these crowded, tangled messes of existence that we all are. And we love Jesus, but we loathe so much of the Christian music industry, and loathe the title “Christian band” more than just about anything in the whole world.
SM: It’s been a few years since the initial release of Home. Now that you’re operating independently, without a label, how has your perspective on the music industry changed?
NW: We’re kind of doing our own thing. Someone said it once before, and I think it’s kind of perfect, “We’re just kind of flailing our arms, pretending we know what we’re doing.”
SM: Oh, I was going to say, it feels like we have our eyes closed and we’re just in the dark, kind of feeling our way, hopefully finding the way.
NW: I feel like the record industry has changed so much that that’s just what everyone is doing.
SM: No one really knows what they’re doing.
NW: No one really knows.
Interview by Anthony Glaser