Life is not a cul de sac. It's not even a one-way street. It's a suburban labyrinth of shifting scenery and bittersweet memories. One minute it's sepia-toned nostalgia, the next a monochrome reminder of melancholy. It's a spectrum of feelings and flavours that slide up and down between bittersweet and bubblegum. It's something we all come to realise in time as the fountain of youth dries up, and it's a sentiment alternative outliers The Maine share on their eighth album, 'XOXO: From Love and Anxiety in Real Time'.
"This record is a bit of a love letter to uncertain moments in life, and also to happy, joyous moments as well," admits lead guitarist Jared Monaco, an air of sombre enthusiasm soaking our conversation. "Without both of those, it's very difficult to be a complete person; you have to take the good with the bad."
Born out of the beautiful moments life throws our way, from the birth of drummer Pat Kirch's first child to vocalist John O'Callaghan getting married, 'XOXO' acts more like an audible photo album than it does a record. It's at once as optimistic as it is pessimistic, dealing with the duality of those magic memories in our lives. It explores the anxiety that hides away until we're happy and haunts the moments we want to cherish most. It's very much an album for the paranoid pandemic times, but not by design.
"To be extremely clear, this is not a COVID record; this is not anything to do with what is happening with that," Jared asserts, firmly putting his foot down at the mention of making a record associated with the modern-day Voldemort. "It's more about a mental state; the way that we fluctuate, the way that we go from one thing to the other, the way that we're not always hot, we're not always cold."
It's a mental state the members of The Maine - rounded out by bassist Garrett Nickelsen and guitarist Kennedy Brock - are all too familiar with. Whilst 'XOXO' is the work of their resident wordsmith John, it's riddled with moments they can all relate to - it wouldn't exist if it didn't.
For Jared, it's an album that harks back to the battle between being a rockstar on the road and a partner on the porch; a representation of his mindset when he almost left The Maine months before the release of 'You Are OK.'
"Being able to relate to that idea is extremely important; to be able to say 'hey, there's this part of my life that makes me feel this'. That opens the door to feeling connected to whatever it is that we're working on," he explains, pausing to ponder the crossroads 'XOXO' has taken them through. "I see a lot of those things that I've experienced in my life being represented with what we're doing right now, you know, there's been plenty of ups and downs for me in the last couple years in and out of this band, so [love and anxiety in real time] is a concept I know really well."
It's a concept that's been out in the open. There's a level of honesty between the band and their fans, the 8123 community, that so many other artists strive for. Back in the times when gigs were things we went to in real life, The Maine would meet their fans at the end. As much as their fans found solace in sharing their experiences with them, so too have they as a band found sharing what most would keep as secrets with their community. Mental health has always been a part of their mantra at the end of the day, not something they've shied away from.
"When we started a rock band, it was, you know, to start a rock band, but the more we grew, and the more we've experienced, and the more people that we've met, and the more experiences that they've shared with us - it's pretty apparent that being able to talk about those things with our fan base, and to not shy away from these sort of topics, has been really important for us," he explains. Emotion creeps through like cracks in the pavement of his voice as he considers the reasons The Maine exists beyond being a band "being able to keep that sort of human element alive throughout every single thing that we've done is our way of giving people a place to go to work through things.
"When everyone's feeling isolated - whether it's the pandemic or the internet, or maybe you've just been stuck in your house for a while, or whatever it is - it's a really important time for people to be vocal, and to have that thing that they can look to that reminds them that they're not doing it by themselves."
While the pandemic has put into perspective their needs for community support with their struggles with mental health, it's also reaffirmed that there are other things they're better off doing by themselves. Having jumped from label to label across their first three records, they off on their own under 8123 and have been growing from strength to strength. How does an independent label handle under the pressure of a pandemic, though?
"To be honest, it's mostly just positives. If anything, for us, 8123 has allowed us to thrive right now," beams Jared, proud of the fact they've not only survived but thrived during the meltdown of the music industry. "When this whole pandemic started, it really breathed new life into the whole operation. We started to realise all these things that we can do that if we were stuck on a label all the time, we just couldn't."
Along with a string of livestreams, including revisiting their "weird stepchild" 'Forever Halloween', they decided to go ahead and write and record an album, one which they produced themselves for the first time. It's something they know they'd never have been able to do before.
"We just bought our own studio in Phoenix. So it's like, we have our own place now where we can go in and around the clock, we can just create whatever we need to create, get it out that day. That's been so huge, especially lately, because all the gears kind of grinded and everything came to a halt. Being able to say, wait a second, we don't have to stop - that alone has been so valuable, you know? Being able to make moves in a time where people aren't expecting you to make moves, and then coming out the other side of it stronger."
If you were playing The Maine at a game of chess, they'd be a few moves ahead of you. On 'You Are OK,' they were trying their best to bring back guitar-driven emo-rock a la My Chemical Romance and Sunny Day Real Estate; on 'XOXO', they're stripping off the drummer jacket vibes for the dancefloor, embracing an indie-pop explosion. As an album, it's bursting with colours; opener 'Sticky' burns bright red with passion, 'Anxiety In Real Time' swims in shades of deep blue, and 'Lips' is the grooviest grade of green. It might come as a surprise to a band who don't look amiss on a pop-punk lineup, but they're branching out and breaking the mould with new friends. Namely, they've found themselves hanging out with Andrew Goldstein, who counts his credits with the likes of chart-era All Time Low, Blackbear, and Katy Perry.
"John actually came out to Los Angeles to do some writing, and he met up with Andrew Goldstein, and he's written tonnes of awesome songs. John came back from that session with 'Sticky', and that was the moment where we snowballed into a record that, in my opinion, is what we do best, which is at its core pop music.''
There's an argument to be had somewhere by the social media scene kids gatekeeping their genre, sure. There's also an argument that they could be risking their status as pop-punk royalty, but it's not something Jared and co. are worried about one bit.
"We're very, very fortunate that we have such an incredible group of fans that followed us through the first record, which was really sugary and poppy, all the way to 'Forever Halloween', which was really raw and dark. People have followed us to all these different ends of the musical spectrum that we've wanted to go to. I think our driving core value that we've always had is to never repeat the same thing, and to never do the same thing twice."
Whether they're putting out pizza box-sized slices of pop-punk, guitar-driven emo-rock, or indie-pop for the masses; there's no disputing that The Maine are the ultimate alternative outliers.
Taken from the July issue of Upset. The Maine's album 'XOXO: From Love And Anxiety In Real Time' is out 9th July.
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