American Hustle: How the Maine triumphed over the neon apocalypse

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Were you to survey all the bands to emerge from the late-’00s emo/pop-punk scene, odds are you wouldn’t find many whose singer currently has his nose in a book about, of all topics, theoretical physics. “I’m reading Physics Of The Future,” says the Maine frontman John O’Callaghan, calling from Arizona, when asked what’s currently turning the wheels in his brain. “It’s by Michio Kaku, and it’s basically his theorized approximations, with scientific backing and where we are technologically today, of what the year 2100 will be like. I just got past the artificial intelligence chapter—like, when robots take over, how will they treat us?”

There’s really no better parallel to the scene the Maine were borne into: armies of indistinguishable, teased-hair teenagers sporting highlighter-colored T-shirts and Nike Dunks and running the rat race for the brass ring. It was Hot Topic crowd’s answer to hair metal, a scene that saw major labels lining up for miles to scoop up backing-track-stocked bands before the bubble burst. But unlike their peers, the overwhelming majority of whom have faded away into obscurity, the Maine not only survived the neon apocalypse—they triumphed above it.

Since splitting from Warner Bros. after the release of 2010’s Black And White, the band—O’Callaghan, guitarists Kennedy Brock and Jared Monaco, bassist Garrett Nickelsen and drummer Pat Kirch—have truly done things their way, eschewing the typical label system for an independent lifestyle that’s allowed them to be doggedly fearless and answer to no one’s interests but their own. Consider: Their 8123 collective is vertical integration at its finest, operating as, among other things, a record label, management company and merchandise fulfiller. Musically, the band have become shape-shifters over that time, morphing from mall emo to a sound with darker tendencies and heavier lyrical themes. But dark can’t exist with light, and the Maine have bridged that gap on their fifth full-length, American Candy, which seamlessly marries the playfulness of their early days with the marked maturity they’ve gained since.

It’s in that sense that American Candy feels like a career encapsulation. Take a song like “24 Floors,” which could pass for one of the more introspective moments on the band’s 2013 album, Forever Halloween, or lead-off track “Miles Away,” which chronicles the same kind of summertime fast living the Maine traded in back on Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. It’s an album that’s got pieces of the band’s musical DNA deeply embedded—down to the ’90s influences that shaped them as youngsters, when O’Callaghan would save his lunch money each week to purchase albums from artists like Fuel and Our Lady Peace at the local Wherehouse Music.

“That was our generation,” O’Callaghan espouses. “One of my buddies actually referenced [Goo Goo Dolls’] Dizzy Up The Girl and that ‘English Girls’ could live on that record, but I haven’t thought about the Goo Goo Dolls since Nicolas Cage was relevant and in [the “Iris”] video.” He laughs. “So it’s definitely part of who I am and part of who we are as a band, but we didn’t sit down and go, ‘What would the ’90s do?’

“We wanted to make something more groove-oriented and light but something that still had a lot of weight to it,” the 26-year-old singer continues. “I think we’ve always written pop songs, and for the past few records we’ve done our best to disguise them as rock songs. They’re still pop songs here, but they don’t feel like it because the content is stronger than when we were 19. We’ve never regressed as a band or moved backward and tried to be those 19-year-old kids we were when we wrote ‘Into Your Arms.’ When I go out onstage, I need to fully believe in whatever I’m saying. That’s the most important thing: being able to put our names on it and stand behind it.”

At first blush American Candy is perhaps the most Maine album title ever, recalling not only their Americana rock influences (namely, Tom Petty) but also those aforementioned ’90 alt-rock acts like the Wallflowers and Counting Crows. But once the album’s title track, a pointed takedown of disposable pop culture and vacuous narcissism with lyrics like “This American candy/It’ll rot your teeth until your gums all bleed” hits, it’s clear this is anything but saccharine.

“[American candy] is something that attempts to please or entertain with complete disregard for character and integrity,” O’Callaghan explains. “It’s not just songs and art, but popular culture in general—television and what have you. It’s a lot to do with the pressure of society, especially the age we’re living in. I would not even begin to understand how hard it would be to a kid that’s 13 or 14 these days, when you’re essentially born on the internet. You visit any YouTube video and look in the comments section. Within five comments, you have people talking about race and body image. It can get so cruel so quickly.”

To that end, American Candy is multifaceted: The album, recorded in desert of Joshua Tree, California, with longtime friend Colby Wedgeworth, is unabashedly poppy yet tangentially rooted in social commentary. Just look to songs like “Am I Pretty?” which tackles the topic of self-esteem and “Diet Soda Society,” challenging our culture’s proclivity to silence important thought in favor of braindead discussion. O’Callaghan certainly has a point, especially in a world in which endless internet squabbles over the color of a dress overshadow debate about things that actually matter. To some, his crusade might feel like a musical get-off-my-lawn moment, an adult years removed from adolescence rallying against things he’s simply not into—but it’s an important cause, especially given the makeup of the band’s largely young and impressionable audience.

“It’s so easy to get bummed out and jaded and think everything sucks,” adds Pat Kirch, bringing additional perspective to the situation. He quotes a lyric in “You Never Know,” a song by Wilco, one of the Maine’s favorite bands: “‘Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.’

“I feel like it’s so easy to get in that headspace of thinking everything was better when you were a kid,” Kirch continues. “Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. I just try to put myself back in that time period and think about what I would have been like back then. I could definitely appreciate the new bands and technology. I’m so far removed from being in high school, yet I still feel like it wasn’t that long ago.”

So how does one balance all this? How do a band, especially one who undoubtedly benefitted from the internet as a baby band (hello, Myspace), take a stand against downward-sloping society while at the same time providing the around-the-clock barrage of Snapchats and status updates their fans crave? More importantly, how do they do this without selling their own principles short or alienating those who’ve allowed them to have a career in the first place? If you’ve got the answers, the Maine would love to chat.

“I used to resent all that,” O’Callaghan says of pop-culture vapidity. “I got so worked up over it, where it enveloped my mind. Now, I’m genuinely disconcerted. I’m more concerned with how I’m representing myself and how we’re representing ourselves. If anyone pulls anything from the album title, I hope it sparks something in people to start questioning things. I think a lot about the questions that arise inside of me, the existential crises that everyone goes through at least once in their life—for me, it’s, like, daily—to impact somebody now. But I don’t sit down and go, ‘Okay, the youth of today need to hear a song about…’

“There’s a track on the record called ‘My Hair,’” he continues. “It can literally be taken as me growing my hair out, or it can be a metaphor for saying, ‘Fuck what everybody thinks.’ You take these basic platitudes and shared sentiments that, no matter how many selfies are being taken, are more rudimentary ideas. That’s where I start. From there, I try to backtrack and make it a little more personal. I look up to Tom Petty immensely because he can write a song that’s universal, but once you read the lyrics, it’s 100 percent personal and intimate to his own experience. That’s something I envy a lot. I try to pull from people like him and Neil Young.” He pauses, then laughs. “I suppose if I had that mastered, we’d be winning Grammys and shit.”

Tiptoeing the line between preaching and placating an audience is a delicate art, but in many ways, The Maine have been fighting the battle between their own impulses and what’s expected of them for years. Unlike many of the bands who either waded in musical monotony or watered down their sound upon boarding the first bus out of the Warped Tour station, the Maine eventually got weirder, darker and all-around better. Back in 2008, few could have expected them to end up as such a respectable rock band—definitely not when they were sporting headbands and flashy Glamour Kills T-shirts like the rest of their scene brethren.

But people change; you’re not the same person you were nearly a decade ago, though thankfully you don’t have every regrettable fashion decision digitally preserved for eternity. (“I have to try hard to remember who that person and those clothes were,” says O’Callaghan with a laugh.) Music writers and fans alike can often be too invested asking bands like the Maine why they’ve changed—instead of grilling their peers who continue to sleepwalk through the same musical formula on why they’ve refused to change. Even so, the Maine simply learned long ago it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

“I feel like we did what we wanted to do, and we knew there’d be consequences that came with that,” Kirch says of the band’s musical progression over the years. Unlike O’Callaghan, the drummer admits he’s much more tuned into the conversation surrounding the band, keeping his finger on the pulse of both audience and critical response. “Like, maybe we could play a bigger venue, but instead we’re playing venues packed with people who love what we do. I think some people think we maybe changed on purpose and are trying to be dark for the sake of being dark or weird. I just get so confused by how a band couldn’t change. I was 17 when I recorded drums for the first record; I’m 25 now. You go from growing up listening to New Found Glory and the Starting Line and Fueled By Ramen bands in high school, and then you get a little older and are exposed to different kinds of bands. You get better at recording and understand the art of making a record. Nothing we ever did on the music side of things was done on purpose. It feels disingenuous to make the same record over and over.”

Nor have they. By virtue of just simply allowing their art to reflect where they are both as musicians and people, the Maine have unlocked innumerable doors and afforded themselves the opportunity to smoothly transition into any number of different musical worlds: The band say they’re just as comfortable touring with an act like “Boston” hitmakers Augustana as they are playing parking lots across the country on the Warped Tour. In some ways, their career trajectory is similar to their longtime friends Anberlin, who took up residence in the modern-rock world after unexpectedly striking it big with the chart-topping single “Feel Good Drag.”

When asked whom he considers the band’s peers, a stumped Kirch laughs and turns the question around in genuine curiosity. Similarly, O’Callaghan pleads the fifth and says he’d prefer others decide; he’s less concerned about how people view him and his bandmates and more engrossed with making sure they stay true to themselves. “We felt like we wore out a lot of the bands we toured with early on, and then we started putting a little distance between ourselves and them,” the singer says. “We needed to figure out where we stood on our own. It wasn’t a pretentious thing. But people will think whatever they want; people think we’ve done the Warped Tour eight times when we’ve only done it twice. We were kind of shocked when we got the offer [last summer], having not done it in five years. But we’ve come to terms with that. We like to think we can go out there and play with anybody.” To his point, the band are bringing Real Friends and Knuckle Puck on tour this spring, marking the first time they’ve toured with a pop-punk act since joining forces with Mayday Parade in 2012 for a co-headlining trek.

But in the end, none of the nuanced discussion about where the band fit in really matters: The Maine’s long-running independent streak ensures they’ve got no one else in charge of their careers but themselves, no label boss breathing down their necks in search of a hit single. Running 8123 has also allowed them to mentor younger acts such as This Century and former A Rocket To The Moon singer Nick Santino (or even a band like Lydia, whom Kirch frequently saw live growing up), drawing from their years of experience to help others avoid some of the same pitfalls that could have derailed the Maine’s career. “You have to make honest music; that’s the utmost important thing,” says This Century guitarist Sean Silverman. “The other is staying incredibly humble and never thinking where you’re at is where you’ll always be. The industry is evolving at such a rate that you’ll never be able to catch up. Enjoy the moments you have, and be thankful for them.”

Thankful: That’s the word that constantly gets thrown around when talking with O’Callaghan and Kirch about the past eight years. They know things could have gone off the rails very easily after the pop-punk scene imploded and their major-label dreams ended contentiously, but people’s true colors are on display when things don’t go according to plan. It’s how you act in the face of adversity that determines how far you’ll go, especially in a business as cutthroat as this. Even though there were any number of bumps in the road to get to the present day, you get the sense the Maine wouldn’t have done it any other way.

“I don’t know; I feel like the best times of our band are about to happen, which is rare to say when you’ve done this for eight years,” Kirch says when asked what the key to longevity is in today’s music business. “I’d like to think it’s the respect we’re able to give our fans,” There’s not much that pisses me off more than bands charging fans a fuck-ton of money to take a picture at a meet-and-greet. We’ve never done things thinking we’re going to get rich off them. We do whatever we’re into at the time, and that’s never going to change.” S

A version of this story was published in Substream #45.