By Peter Lillis
Sure, on paper it sounds great, but true creative autonomy has an element of terror to it.
Creators are decision makers, after all. Imagine the infinite number of choices that must be made to write one chorus: tonalities, pitch, key, instrumentation, lyrics, etc. Pick poorly, you’ll have a shit chorus. On the other hand, deliberate and methodical decision-making will yield a cohesive and consistent product. So choose carefully.
Aaron Maine – lead songwriter, producer, engineer, and performer for NYC’s Porches – makes such decisions. His latest LP, Pool, is a stunning work of consistency, carrying a chic yet melancholic vibe through twelve songs. Its slick digital synths buzz and burble around tasteful auto-tune and runway-ready rhythms, like a more purposeful 808s and Heartbreak.
In an interview with BYT, Maine describes the deliberate process for changing his sound, how fans have reacted, the reality of self-doubt, and the decision makers who have influenced him.
Porches plays DC’s Rock & Roll Hotel this Wednesday, Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg on April 13, and Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom April 15. All dates are with Alex G and Your Friend. Pool is out now on Domino Records.
When you began working on this project, did you set out with the intent of creating that mood? Or did that feel become more clear to you through the process?
I did sorta set out to try and achieve a very cohesive album. I feel like I haven’t paid too much attention to that, surprisingly or not, in the past. But, yeah, I was very particular about holding the songs to a certain standard, and making sure that they all worked together as a larger piece.
Did you have any criteria in mind to set those standards? Were you that explicit and deliberate with yourself?
It was really just an exercise in trying to pay attention to these songs and how they felt and how they work. It was a way for me to reexamine my music and process.
As a solo recording artist and producer, do you find that at-home recording makes it easier for you to reach that intended vision? Do you ever miss having the opportunity to bounce ideas with other people?
I think it’s kind of healthy to do both, but for me I think I need that time to obsess over something, and you know, play a keyboard part like a hundred times before keeping a take. I like obsessing over it, and that’s a lot easier to do when you’re on your own time, and no one else’s.
No matter how chill the vibe is at the studio or space, you still are on the clock, and most likely paying for it. [You’re] just generally aware that there are other people there. So, I enjoy the freedom to just go off on these tangents or like kind of be psychotic about these recordings, and really live in them.
In your dedication – or “obsession,” as you call it – did you ever find that your recording process would negatively affect your psyche or day-to-day life? Do you ever feel like you get too deep and you have to resurface?
Yeah, totally. That’s the beauty of working with someone else – that there’s someone there to say, “It’s going to be OK,” or “That was the take, you definitely got it.”
I don’t think it ever got too intense, but there were days where I fell in hard, sitting there with the headphones in and not really feeling human. It took a while to adjust to being back in the real world and talking with people. And it gets frustrating at times too, but overall it’s been an enjoyable and exciting experience, recording at home.
It must have taken a lot of self-trust to bring yourself through this process and deliver to yourself as much as anyone else. You clearly trust your creative instincts, to be able to spend as much time on a project, such as this record.
I think that’s the most important thing about being an artist. I don’t think anyone would be doing this if they didn’t trust themselves, at least to a certain extent. Maybe taking on the recording/producing aspect of it isn’t always the case for all artists, but it felt natural for this project once I started. It’s just another way to effectively get your vision across. The more that you’re involved in the process, I think the truer the final piece is, for better or for worse.
I totally get that. I struggle personally with confronting creative self-doubt, so I think it’s really admirable to buy-in, so to speak, fully in yourself and your ideas.
Maybe naive and selfish too.
Well, I don’t know about that. I can see why you’d feel that way. But, on the other hand, you have a record like Pool, which is a singular vision that came to fruition through your dedication and trust. The way it resonates with others, myself included, I suppose validating in its own right.
Yeah, totally. It’s scary sometimes, but I feel confident most of the time about the decisions I make, and sometimes I feel like I lost it. But I don’t really know how to describe it.
I’m fascinated by how artists can, pardon the pun, take the plunge on following their creative instincts.
If there’s any trace of the artist being self-conscious about their work, I feel like that weakens the piece in the end. There’s something really amazing about seeing someone fully commit to this insane thing, their own art. You know what I mean?
Now, I forget who said it, but I firmly believe in the concept that you go to the rock show to see someone believe in themselves, in the most beautiful way, for like 45 mins. I think you just have to commit. That’s one of the most important things.
Are there any artists whose commitment has inspired you?
I’ve always admired Dev Hynes of Blood Orange. He just goes for it. Whatever it is, he just goes in. For all I know, all of it could be out of his comfort zone, but it’s so convincing and so beautiful to just see someone believe in and do it for themselves. It’s cool, I think it’s quite good.
David Bowie, also, in terms of switching it up. I think that’s when it’s most apparent, when you know you can commit to something as an artist, and the audience believed him, no matter what persona he was assuming. There was no question of what he was trying to do, he believed in the project and just did it.
I kind of felt similar about making this record that sounded really different, and I didn’t want it to seem like I was trying on a different outfit. I feel like I sort of became that person, and I think it’s believable, kind of ridiculous to say. I can understand why some people would be shocked or upset at the shift.
Were you apprehensive about changing your sound?
No, not at all. If anything, I was excited to shed the haters. It’s cool if you’re not into it, but I can’t concern myself with pleasing people at the cost of my own creative pursuit.
There’s the implication that you make music for yourself, but I assume you feel at least somewhat validated by the response you’ve received so far. Do you think you would be at this level as an artist if audiences were less receptive? Meaning, would your creative output differ in quality or substance if the fans weren’t there?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I’d like to say it wouldn’t be different. But it is interesting.
When you see people react to your music as it exists in the world as an official release – whatever that means – that experience kind of changes it in a way. I think I have sort of learned more about my work from the larger response from the public, especially on the last record to this one.
I think it’s been beneficial so far to see how people are reacting, to either continue with certain things that I thought were working, or shed some of the other components that people weren’t getting or weren’t the reaction I was going for.
So, yeah, I don’t know. It’s interesting, and hard to say.
What specifically were you looking to shed from the last record to this one?
I really hated the “bummer pop” thing. I feel like it was thrown in, like, every little piece about the band. And I just didn’t like that idea.
To me, the songs were all sort of personal victories – you know, working through it or trying to turn a shitty situation into a beautiful song. I understand that’s not how the songs were being absorbed. And now when I listen back, I can totally see the angst there and the just kind of sad subject matter.
So, I consciously set out on this record to have it feel more moody and vibey and contemplative, but also vexing and chic, as opposed to grimey, grungey headbanging. I’m not really interested in that anymore.
Do you think you’ve been effective at shedding that image?
Yeah, I think this album is a huge step away from that. Some people are always going to think of what I do as being sad or depressing, but I think this record was a step in the right direction for me personally.
One of the themes throughout the album is driving. There’s a lot of lines about cars and driving and vibing out while you’re driving. Do you drive in the city? Do you have a car in New York?
No, I don’t. It’s an idea, reminiscing and romanticizing driving in the suburbs where I grew up, and like how special that felt, especially after I moved to the city and no longer having that experience often. It’s a ritual.
Another theme peppered through the record: smoking weed. Do you ever find that smoking weed hinders your productivity?
I hardly smoke weed. If I do, it’s like the tiniest at nighttime at home. I do really enjoy it, and I think it can have positive creative affects. If I happen to work on a song afterwards, sometimes it’s great, but I never used it like as a tool. Sometimes I’ll want to watch TV and eat, and not work on music. So yeah, I don’t usually do it with the idea of enhancing my creative process, I guess.
Did you grow up in a musical family? Have you always been making music?
Yeah, my dad is a songwriter, and still is writing and recording music. My mom studied dance and played classical piano. Sort of a different world than what I was interested in growing up, but it was important that I saw my dad writing and recording when I was a kid. These seemed like perfectly natural things to do, so I it made sense for me to do it when I started.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.