John O'Callaghan is beat. The 23-year-old singer has just returned from fronting his band, The Maine, on a quickie tour with Taking Back Sunday.
O'Callaghan slinks into a molded plastic chair at Cartel Coffee Lab in Tempe. He has the rock-star look down pat: a frayed denim vest over a leather jacket wrapped tightly around his rail-thin frame, shielding him from the early November chill. Around his neck hangs a Native American-style feather. "Reception was really, really good at most of the shows," he says. "There were some older kids, too, which we were happy about."
The "older kids" — most likely a reference to anyone north of 20 years old — have proved an elusive "get" for The Maine. The group formed in 2007 in Tempe and garnered significant tween attention with a pair of EPs, Stay Up, Get Down and The Way We Talk (the latter featuring an Akon cover), before signing with pop-punk label Fearless Records (Blessthefall, At the Drive In, Plain White T's) for the release of its debut full-length, Can't Stop, Won't Stop. The record sold well, and the band stepped up to the majors with 2010's Black & White, which was issued by Warner Brothers Records, who signed The Maine to a seven-album deal — a daunting prospect for a veteran act, let alone a group of 19-year-olds.
The band started work with producer Howard Benson (My Chemical Romance, Three Doors Down, Creed), aiming for a more mature sound in an attempt to draw fans outside the teenage market that helped the band achieve commercial footing. In a review of the record, iTunes said: "There's no trace of punk left in their approach . . . In fact, if the vocals had more of a twang, the record could pass for a modern country release. It will certainly appeal to the same kind of fans who like Taylor Swift — people who like solid, catchy songs, sung earnestly."
O'Callaghan agrees, somewhat to his chagrin.
"We tried to play the game," O'Callaghan says. "We felt like they knew what they were doing. We went and co-wrote, did that whole deal. And it was a huge learning experience, I think, just feeling it all out. In retrospect, I wouldn't change anything, because, obviously, you can't."
O'Callaghan feels that Black & White was "the right album to make," but the band had a different approach for its latest, Pioneer, which was released in early December. The Maine retreated to producer Colby Wedgeworth's studio in Sacramento to start work on the album without informing Warner Brothers of their intentions.
"We went in with no pressure. Whatever we were feeling at the time kind of came out. It's definitely going to surprise some people. People who are trying to hear our first EP or our first record; that's not going to happen."
The sessions yielded nine songs, which the band presented to an indifferent A&R staff at the label. "They all said the same shit."
Undaunted, the band returned to Wedgeworth's studio and recorded another 18 songs. "Nobody [working at the label now] worked [on] Black & White. They all got canned. So, our A&R is gone; everyone is gone. We have these people kind of, in essence, promising us the moon, and we bought into it . . . If it were a case where everybody was still there, still fighting for us, it would be different story. But . . . you know, we took the new songs to the label when our A&R was still working there, and he kind of had this weird reaction to it. He wasn't really about it. So, we were disheartened. We kind of resented the whole idea. That's when the whole roof fell in. We were just like, 'Fuck everybody.' You know? Why did [they] sign us in the first place if [they were] just going to tell us to be somebody else?"
Frustrated, the band fought to release the album, O'Callaghan says. Eventually, Warner Brothers agreed, but under the unusual condition that the band would self-release the record and that it would not count toward the seven records contractually owed to the label.
"You know, really, the whole experience with them and us felt like they patted us on the head and said, 'Okay, yeah, go ahead. This is really cute. Go ahead and do your thing. Put out your record, and you guys see what happens. Then you'll have to be back on the label.'
The situation is reminiscent of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot saga, portrayed in grainy black-and-white detail in the 2002 film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. In that case, the band turned a mildly experimental record (paid for by Warner Brothers) over to their label (Warner Brothers) only to have the record rejected, given back to the band, purchased by a Warner Brothers subsidy (Nonesuch), and released to great acclaim.
Of course, the parallels are hardly concrete.Why Warner rejected Pioneer makes little sense: It's less rustic than Black & White but is hardly a venture into uncharted experimental sounds or even a return to the band's pop-punk roots. Lead single "Don't Give Up on 'Us'" sounds like the kind of U2-meets-Springsteen pop that The Killers scored hits with, "My Heroine" goes for a nasty, buzzy modern rock sound, while "When I'm at Home" aims for classic rock, with a stomping Zeppelin vibe. "While Listening to Rock & Roll" — with its lyric "I can feel it in my bones / A little rock, a little roll" —sounds as if could be a CMT standard, as pop-country as Rascal Flatts, with a heartland lyric straight out of the Bob Seger songbook.
The whole thing makes little sense. If major labels can't sell music this populist, what exactly can they sell? O'Callaghan, far wearier than he should be at 23, is nearly as confused. "[I think] they all know that it's going to fall on their heads," he says.
"At the end of everything," O'Callaghan says, "I have to understand that everybody in my band — everybody that's a part of it — we signed on. We jumped on the ship. It's not, like, we can talk all the shit we want, but at the end of the day we wrote it. We inked it. It's really on us."
Though the pop music landscape has changed dramatically in the past decade, O'Callaghan cites as heroes artists who have benefited from Warner Brothers' traditional, career-minded approach, artists like Jack White, Tom Petty, and Neil Young. But the band's chief inspiration for fighting for Pioneer was an even closer Warner Brothers associate: former CEO Tom Whalley.
"I think what actually sparked our entire process was a dinner in New Jersey, with [Whalley] when he was CEO. He had us over at his beach house on the Jersey Shore, which is like 50 feet from the beach, in the summer of 2010. And kind of the whole gist of the talk we had was basically him saying, 'Never compromise. Do you think Jack White or Neil Young ever compromised?'
"And he said, 'If you have faith in what you're doing, and you really believe in it, never let anybody outside of that alter that.' It was really weird, because the whole talk sounded like he was going to quit or resign or whatever. Well, two weeks later, we get this e-mail that says Tom Whalley has stepped down [as CEO]. It was this weird, kind of last message to us. The guy who [was] in the studio with Green Day — listening to the record, making sure it's good — is telling us, don't give in to what these people around you are telling you. He was telling us to give hell to all the people he was working with."
Pioneer, released by the band on its own Action Theory label on Tuesday, December 6, debuted on the Billboard charts at number 90 and sold 12,000 copes in its first week. The record peaked at number six on the Independent Albums chart. Respectable numbers, but are they respectable enough to earn The Maine the kind of leverage afforded to O'Callaghan's heroes when the group returns to Warner at the end of this album cycle?
O'Callaghan isn't sure, but for now, there's plenty to distract him from any worries: the Pioneer tour, interviews, and, of course, quick scans of the band's Tumblr mentions, which features dozens of photos of fans posing in front of "the Maine Wall" on Roosevelt and Second streets in downtown Phoenix ("I don't really check that out much," he laughs).
O'Callaghan is worn — but not down. "It's a win for us. We get to put out the music that we made, on our own, that we produced, that we own all the rights to. We get to put it out, and people are going to hear it. It's very exciting."