Picture this: It’s a humid 90 degrees and you’re on a rooftop in New York City with 3000 other people. On one side is the Manhattan skyline; on the other Brooklyn. Everyone is turned toward a stage—the Brooklyn Bridge visible just behind it. On it, a band dressed in pink stands. One of the members holds up a sign that says “We Are All the Same” and the crowd screams. Welcome to Sad Summer Fest 2019, the tour of your dreams that will undoubtedly replace the Warped-size hole in your heart.
Outside NYC’s Pier 17—a fantastic venue with a couple of empty floors and a rooftop space—I catch up with The Maine’s vocalist John O’Callaghan. We’re on their tour bus, in between Stand Atlantic’s set and Mom Jeans.’, and he explains where the idea for Sad Summer Fest came from. “It was Pat or Tim [Kirch],” he says. “The real birth of it was how could we get a triple co-bill instead of just a co-headliner. That snowballed into having the opportunity on Warped [last year] to talk to Mayday Parade and State Champs directly, explain our vision, really rally behind the idea. We can’t play to 5000 people alone in Massachusetts, so what if we came together and provided this festival atmosphere that feels different from a club show.”
Since Warped ended its cross-country run last year, O’Callaghan feels like there’s still a want for a summer festival. “How do we build a brand around the idea of people who enjoy this specific genre of music…whatever that is,” he adds thoughtfully. “I don’t necessarily think it’s a genre, I would consider all three ‘headliners’ to be very different. I think it’s about leaning into the idea of communities around music and sharing that experience.”
In the end, O’Callaghan says it’s all about “shelving the ego and coming together and just trying to work towards a common goal: Delivering a fun atmosphere and a great day of people…listening to tunes and having fun.”
Because of the festival set-up, each band only has about 40 minutes on stage, which makes putting a setlist together very difficult. “It’s hard to implement new tunes in our set,” says O’Callaghan. “You want to appease yourself but you also want people to be happy.”
“It’s crazy that the record only came out a couple of months ago,” he continues, referring to the band’s latest album, You Are Ok. Normally The Maine does a full headlining tour after a new release but this time they’ve changed it up—they officially kicked off the YAO era in Europe followed by some west coast dates before embarking on Sad Summer Fest. And though the album has only been out since the end of March fans have really embraced this new sound. “‘Numb Without You’ has been crazy since the jump, and it’s interesting because we got a lot of responses online about ‘Heaven, We’re Already Here’,” he says. I interrupt to tell him that ‘Heaven’ is my favorite track off of YAO and O’Callaghan seems genuinely grateful.
“There’s a lot of life left in [this album]. This fall will be more of an opportunity to play You Are Ok-centric songs,” he hints, noting that he’s personally excited to dive into ‘Tears Won’t Cry (Shinjū)’. “We were really caught off guard by the response [to that song]. It’s a little different for our band.” He also acknowledges that the support for the nearly 10-minute long album closer, “Flowers on the Grave” , was a bit surprising. “We didn’t know if people would be down for the journey.”
Since it’s unlikely that they’d throw a 10-minute long song into a standard set, I ask if the band will be playing YAO in full at any point like they’ve done with previous albums. O’Callaghan considers it. “My big thing is, we’ve already done those tours,” he says. And having been a band for twelve years, “there’s a lot of material…you can’t please everybody.” He’s not totally opposed to the idea but ultimately he’s more concerned with making sure it’s the best and most intuitive decision for the band.
Before they do any sort of fall touring, though, The Maine has a handful of other dates. At the beginning of August, they head to Brazil for the 8123-branded Emo Carnival they’ve put together along with The Technicolors, Nick Santino, Joel Kanitz, and Wanderer. And at the end of August, they’re heading overseas to the UK’s famous Reading & Leeds festivals.
“Reading & Leeds is like a badge of honor kind-of-thing,” O’Callaghan says. “You never really expect too much from being accepted into different worlds. We’re so used to getting our hopes up for things, being let down, but then just driving to work harder and maintain and help cultivate what we can control.” To be invited to something as iconic as Reading & Leeds is really special. “It’s not like an awards show, you get to take your music to another platform.”
Despite having been a band for over a decade, despite the numerous sold out shows and festivals and general love from their fans, The Maine remains grounded and humble. Take, for example, the concept of fan tattoos, something the band has been sharing more often on their social media. “It’s nuts,” says O’Callaghan with a hint of awe. “Having tattoos myself, I know what goes into deciding what you’re going to get on your body. So, for how intimate a process that is for me [personally]…it’s completely humbling. In a lot of ways, it’s reassuring,” he adds. “Like, OK, I’m doing something positive, I’m saying something that I deem to be positive, and somebody reaffirming it [by getting a tattoo]. Something that I hold dear, it means something, it resonates…it’s been really cool,” he says with a laugh, his usual eloquence deserting him for a moment as he tries to describe how it feels.
O’Callaghan has a couple of The Maine-specific tattoos himself. The words on his chest ‘we all have been degraded/we all will be the greatest’ were worked into “We’ll All Be”—the closing track on their debut full-length Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. Though O’Callaghan got the tattoo before he wrote the song, it’s always been an important concept for him. “It represents everything that I stand for, it’s about my friends. I don’t think I would get my own lyrics at this point,” he adds with a smile. “But I definitely want to get a little ‘M’, I haven’t figured out where I want to put it.”
Amongst all his own tattoos, he has lyrics from a Beach Slang song (‘I hope when I die I feel this alive’) but nothing else inspired by other bands. “It was sort of impulsive,” he says. “But that’s what I like about tattoos. It can be long and drawn out and overthought, or it could be like yo, this is how I’m feeling right now.” He appreciates the idea of having a piece done and years later, looking in the mirror and “remember[ing] where my head was.”
There are people (myself included) with tattoos of lyrics handwritten by the band and O’Callaghan stops to consider which ones he’s written out the most. “‘Unlost’ is asked for a lot,” he says. “Not so much anymore but ‘stay away, sweet misery…everything is temporary’ is a newer one.” Other big ones are ‘control what you can/confront what you can’t and ‘always keep in mind things are fine.’ Not surprisingly, it’s the lyrics that remind us that we’ll be okay that are the most popular. If there’s one thing The Maine understands it’s how to reassure their fans that they are not alone.
Case in point: I admit to O’Callaghan—who turned thirty last year—that approaching my thirties is stressing me out and he immediately responds “Don’t freak out. Enjoy it. That goes with being alive.” He gets introspective for a moment. “We’ve been vaguely dealing with death this whole tour…life is fragile, everything is fragile. I would say enjoy it and do as much as you can for yourself.”
“When it comes to your craft and your skill set, it’s really important for you to have your voice be the loudest,” he advises. “It’s okay to be selfish in that respect. Things can get so muddied when other people are speaking for you or interpreting what you’re trying to say and saying it for you.” This especially rings true for The Maine themselves and how they operate. “We as a band can be misconstrued sometimes as being a little introverted as a group because we’re so close and we share a common vision…It’s not the case, we’re so ingrained in what we’re doing that it’s like getting older makes us appreciate what we have and makes us want to work harder for whatever more might come. DIY!” he concludes.
DIY is the perfect way to describe The Maine. Back to that rooftop: Prior to the first band going on stage, four of the five members walked along the early access line, pausing to chat and take photos with fans. O’Callaghan himself stood near their merch booth on the fourth floor of Pier 17 for at least an hour, spending time with everyone who lined up to meet him before taking a group photo. The Maine are concerned with making sure everyone has the ultimate experience at Sad Summer Fest—even if it means sweating in the hot NYC sun and hugging complete strangers.
By the time The Maine closes the festival, just before 9pm that night, with the sun just about to set and the Brooklyn Bridge lit up in the background, the band’s penchant for going above and beyond to make their shows a welcoming space is on display. From O’Callaghan’s “We Are All the Same” sign, to his b-stage performance of “Another Night on Mars” (I will never figure out how he made it through the crowd and into the sound booth without anyone noticing), to their tradition of bringing someone up on stage to sing during “Girls Do What They Want”—everything seems planned to make the biggest impact on the crowd. And make the best memories.
Picture this: you’re on a rooftop in New York City and you’re screaming the lyrics to your favorite song, the same ones you have tattooed on your arm. The moon, rising above the Brooklyn skyline on your left side, seems extra bright as if it’s shining down on the crowd specifically. The Maine is on stage reminding you that you are okay, no matter what you’re going through. You feel like you’re part of something bigger as you blend into a crowd of 3000. Welcome to Sad Summer Fest 2019 – the tour that makes you feel alive in a way that no other tour can.