John O’Callaghan, despite the weird year that was 2020, managed to make the most of it. “I’ve been surprisingly pretty well,” he tells me at the start of our phone conversation a few weeks back. Of course, like many other artists who have had their lives turned upside down, he envisioned 2020 — and 2021 — going vastly different for him and the band he fronts, The Maine.
How has he made the most of it, I’m sure you find yourself asking. Well, for starters, he got married back in October of 2020. “We had to pivot from the originally planned ordeal, but it’s — honestly, a lot of people said it would change a whole lot, and fortunately it hasn’t,” O’Callaghan says. Though, he does point out that it changed her last name and jokes, “I don’t know how she’s feeling about that,” due to the length and apostrophe of her newly adopted surname.
Personal life changes aside, O’Callaghan continued to stay busy through music — without touring to do, he hunkered down and focused solely on the beauty of making music. The result is two albums: The Maine’s eighth studio album (more on that later) and his debut full-length under the John the Ghost moniker, I Only Want to Live Once.
O’Callaghan first debuted John the Ghost back in the spring of 2016 with the Sincerely, John the Ghost EP, but has largely stayed untouched since. The Maine had just put out American Candy the year prior, so they didn’t necessarily have new tunes coming soon, and some of them were very obviously never going to fit into The Maine. “I just had extra material floating in the creative aether,” he tells me, explaining that in 2016 he was living in a garage in the house that belongs to Tim Kirch, who manages The Maine. “I had a little makeshift studio in there, I had my buddy Brennan Smiley from the Technicolors kind of help me sift through some of the ideas that I had floating around. With him and some other buds and Pat from the Maine, just kinda put out some songs and I think those songs were really derivative of what I was listening to at the time.”
What he was listening to a lot of in 2016 was bands like Beck, Red House Painters, and so forth — stuff that was heavily based around an acoustic guitar. I Only Want to Live Once, in contrast, is more so a compilation of different vibes, as O’Callaghan says, which all sorta pull from his love and appreciation for pop music. Although it may sound different from the EP, and bounce around sounds throughout the album itself, O’Callaghan knows that fans of his will largely be used to it. “I’d like to compare it to the idea that we’ve prided ourselves on with The Maine: there isn’t one specific sound that you can pinpoint when you think of the band,” he says. “We’ve been very proud of the idea that we’ve had country songs, pop-punk songs, we’ve had alternative songs. I think we’ve tried to be pretty all over the place.
There’s a lot of reasons O’Callaghan kept the record diverse, but one reason in particular is that some of the songs can be traced back to ideas he had four, five years ago. One in particular that he highlights is the song “So So,” which he mentions has been sitting on for over four years now. We didn’t dive into specifics on how many other songs on I Only Want to Live Once may have come from an older idea; however, he did give me a number on how many other random ideas are left on his computer. “I’m actually looking at my computer now, I could tell you just from a voice memo standpoint, I have 963 voice memos on my iTunes. I have 15 hours and 26 minutes of just nonsense. Some of it you can hear a stream of urine while I’m standing up going pee, whistling or humming or some shit,” O’Callaghan says with a laugh.
For the rest of the songs on I Only Want to Live Once that weren’t born from a bathroom voice memo, out of the ideas were born around February of 2020 — right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in full force. “I was writing a lot of material on the road which was different for me, and so initially it all started as what was going to become the next Maine record,” O’Callaghan says, but assures fans these aren’t just outcasts of songs that weren’t good enough to make it for The Maine’s record. “Then I wrote more and those songs I liked better than some of the others, and some of the others I realized I liked just as much but they don’t fit with the vibe of The Maine record,” he summarizes.
One of the songs that was written last year is “Drive,” which I bring up to O’Callaghan to ask if it was written in response to the pandemic, specifically due to the line that goes “the TV said the world’s on fire.” He confirms that it was written a few months into the pandemic, and was born in response to everything going on. He recalls that the idea for the song came back at the beginning of the pandemic, when it seemed like going outside itself was a scary thought. “It literally just happened while we had our dogs and I had my wife in the car, we were literally just going for a drive,” he says.
However, the song is not explicitly just about these current strange times we were in. He likens it to the idea of when you’re a teenager and you first get your license; the feeling of freedom that comes with that. Realistically speaking, you have the ability to go anywhere once you obtain your license. However, after so long, it starts to lose it’s charm and then having your license and car turns into a form of utility that gets you from Point A to Point B. “Hopefully for people, this experience has made the mundane feel more important again. I feel like that’s what [“Drive”] is about: taking something that you take for granted and making it mean something again.”
Perhaps one of the more important and moving songs on this John the Ghost record, though, is the almost-title track, “Live Once.” Releasing “Live Once” before the album released was sort of a last-minute idea he had, which he mentions is something that has made this project and this album so fun, is because it’s very different from The Maine when things are much more planned and laid out. But the reasoning behind releasing “Live Once” before, was simply because it embodies the message behind the album title, I Only Want to Live Once.
To explain the album’s title, O’Callaghan brings up a conversation he had with one of his friends. His friend was under the impression that the message behind “I only want to live once” was a bad one — something that O’Callaghan denies. “I view it more as a positive,” he begins, “You’re only given one walk around the block and I felt like, a lot of songs that I’ve put out prior to this and before I fell in love, I was singing about that shit all the time. Singing about all these things that I wanted, and I think ‘Live Once’ is all about the idea that I obtained those things and why I am not as thankful as I should be?”
It all coincides with the idea that while on this planet, as far as we know, we’re given the ability to breathe and function, and it’s important to take advantage of that and live life to the fullest and appreciate it every day.
“Its kind of regardless of your religious beliefs, it’s more the idea that like, I think I say it in the song, how much would life mean without death? I think that as I get older, the more I realize, especially watching my folks age, you start to — that mortality thing starts to creep in,” O’Callaghan elaborates further. “As if it wasn’t stressful enough to be alive as a teenager or as a fucking 23 year old, when you’re like ‘I’m gonna die’ every day, you know? Getting older, there are great parts about it. I think having that perspective is really important. And just the idea that I have the ability to look back, it’s really incredible.”
Back at the beginning of the article, I mentioned that some updates on The Maine would be coming, and naturally the band came up during our conversation. For the band, the last few album rollouts have followed a distinct pattern: hold 8123 Fest in January, release a single right before the festival, and then drop the album in the spring. Of course all of that has come unrivaled, as the band had to postpone the 2021 edition of 8123 fest to next year, as well as their second annual Sad Summer Fest that was set to take place in the summer of 2020. As of now, Sad Summer is still scheduled for the summer of 2021, but The Maine is keeping an eye on things.
“Not to play the tiny violin, but it certainly fucking sucks,” O’Callaghan tells me on all of the events they’ve had to postpone. “For not only our band, but — it just sucks across the board. I think everybody knows that. At this point, all we’re trying to do is figure out how to survive as a band. When the majority of how we survive comes from being on the road, this has made us have to adapt. I think now we’re just trying to figure out how to make things just as exciting without the luxury of like, ‘Hey we’re gonna do this in Los Angeles on this date’ you know what I mean?”
A positive spin on things, though, is that it has allowed The Maine to hone in more on their next studio album. When I ask if there’s a percent O’Callaghan could share with me, he says “I can’t even give a percentage. We had to go back and mix a few songs again. We’re like right at — it’s like running a marathon and being able to see a ribbon, but you’re not getting any closer like ‘Oh my god this has been 26 miles.'”
While there is no nice percentage to look at, rest assured that the record is nearly ready to complete. The details are yet to be announce, but it’s all there. The album title has been settled on, the artwork has been chosen. Right now, he tells me they are putting together vinyl variants, merchandise, and all of those things so that they’re ready to go. “Believe us that we had so many plans. I could tell you that,” he says on how they were originally going to roll out the album, but summarizes it’s current status with “It’s close, it’s very close.”
While the pandemic ultimately flipped the lives of O’Callaghan, the rest of The Maine, and all of us upside down — there has been good to come out of it. Rather than dwell on the negatives that we all know about, O’Callaghan has taken the opposite approach. The result is a phenomenal debut for John the Ghost, and an upcoming album from The Maine that will surely be just as good. While it’s not always easy to look at the positives in times like these, O’Callaghan is doing his best.
John the Ghost’s ‘I Only Want to Live Once’ is out now via 8123 and can be purchased here.