The members of Mike Mains & The Branches have constantly changed, but the core has always been Mike and Shannon Mains, and their love for not just music but also each other. Currently made up of Mike and Shannon Mains, Alex Hirlinger, Robbie Barnett and Allison Barnett, the band is set to release their first album, When We Were in Love, in five years on April 5th. I got the chance to talk with Mike about the band’s history, what inspired their single, “Breathing Underwater,” what he’s currently nerding out about and so much more! Keep reading to see what he had to say!
For those who might not have ever heard of y’all, can you give us a brief history of the band and how it culminated into what it is now?
Of course! We formed the band in 2010 while I was living in Texas. During that time, I was sending demos of songs that would be on our first album, Home, to Shannon to put keys and sing over. We moved the band to Michigan shortly after. Little did I know, two years later we would fall in love and get married. Since then we’ve had a great group of musicians filling different roles, but Shannon and I have remained the core of the team. We’ve only ever had an original lineup on the first album, but since then it’s just been us and whoever out of our close friend group was available. That’s definitely changed as our current lineup feels more consistent and longterm. It’s our best lineup since we started this band and we’re so excited to have them play this album release tour in the spring.
I’m always genuinely curious about what artists want to convey to listeners with their music. How would you describe your sound without using genre names? What kind of music do you produce?
We aim to produce honest music and write songs about life, death, joy, failure and everything in-between. Basically we’re just doing our best to capture the human condition in musical form.
Going off of that, who are some of your musical influences as a band?
Growing up, I cut my teeth on [Tom] Petty, The Cranberries, Nirvana, Blink 182, Third Eye Blind. I remember laying in my room with my ears glued to the stereo speaker when Third Eye Blind’s self-titled album came out. “Semi-Charmed Life” shattered my idea of what music could be. It was rock, but it was also pop mixed with this busy rap-like verses that were so punchy and rhythmic. It’s a perfect song and the album is my favorite of all time. I’m always measuring my work against that and falling short… [laughs]. Shannon grew up on jazz, The Beatles, Grateful Dead, Buddy Holly and The Spice Girls. We call her the “NPR Darling” of the group because she’s always listening to something weird or tastefully artistic. Our tastes can be pretty polarizing, but we both agree on Neil Young, Wilco, Mariah Carey, Bowie, The Killers, Arcade Fire and a giant array of other amazing artists.
Let’s move on and talk about your new album, When We Were in Love. I know you’ve said that recording this album was a form of marriage counseling. What was it about the process that you specifically found to be so therapeutic and healing?
Some people swim at the bottom of a bottle or play golf on the weekends. I don’t have hobbies. It’s all music. Growing up, music was my hobby and the only place where I could deeply retreat inside myself to sift through all the beauty, fear, pain and joy floating down below. Over the years, I forgot about how therapeutic music could be because it had also become my profession. The process of writing through the pain was suggested to me by my therapist, and the healing came with process itself. Showing up to the studio in the morning with no song and leaving to grab a beer at the end of the day with Nathan Horst (our producer) and having a song was so mindful and exciting. He and I would call each other in the morning and talk about ways we could make the songs better because we had gotten new ideas in our sleep or in the shower or in the car on the way to the studio. I lived life with Nathan for a month. I shared many meals with his family and the core of the album was born out of that season. I owe him and his wife a great debt. They are solid gold.
How long did it take for this album to come together from start to finish?
Too damn long… [laughs]! All-in-all, it took 3 years and some change.
The latest single from the album is “Breathing Underwater.” What’s the story behind the song?
“Breathing Underwater” came from the Japanese tradition of Kintsugi. The idea is that when a vase shatters you sweep up the pieces and reassemble the vase, using melted gold to hold the piece together. It celebrates the brokenness in our lives and instead of hiding it suggests that our brokenness is what makes us beautiful. It’s also basically like eavesdropping on my counseling sessions.
What was the songwriting process like for this song specifically? Did you guys write solely by yourselves or was this the result of a co-write?
Nathan and I wrote this track together. We started with a beat and just sang absolute nonsense over the track until it felt solid. From there, I’d spend most mornings with a demo track and go to a local coffee shop and write lyrics over the melody on my laptop. At lunch, we’d fine tune them and then record everything.
Speaking of songwriting, who are some of your musical influences when it comes songwriting
My influences are always changing, but for this album Win Butler was by far my biggest influence. No one will ever replace [David] Bowie, but if anyone can walk around in his shoes it’s Win. Jack Antanoff, Lorde, Sharon Van Etten, The National, Springsteen and Neil Young were all ghosts in the machine as well.
Was there any major changes to the song that happened once you guys got into the recording studio, whether it be in the lyrics or something sonically?
“Breathing Underwater” was born in the studio, so it was more like we boiled some water and starting throwing in vegetables and spices until the flavor was just right. This one came pretty quickly. Nathan is my most favorite collaborator on the planet. He makes creating so easy and knows how to get out of the way and slowly let the song bloom naturally. He’s an amazing producer.
Since you were so open and personal on this album, which track from this album do you feel best represents who you are personally and who you are as a band?
Gosh, there are so many tracks that capture different “states” I find myself in. If I had to pick one though I’d say “Around The Corner”. I’m always railing against this idea that I’m not enough. That everyone else has their shit together and I was born with a canyon inside my soul and no matter what I do it will never be filled. I wrote it for myself and anyone who knows what its like to be haunted by depression, shame and mental illness.
What do you guys hope people take away from this album and your music in general?
That life is joy, pain and beauty all crashing together. You are not alone and love is the mountain we must climb.
Lastly, we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd so what is something that you’re currently nerding out about?
I recently had surgery, and during the recovery process I became obsessed with the art of mountain climbing and free soloing. I’ll probably buy a few RX Bars and hike several national parks. But no plans to climb Everest anytime soon. The mountains are deeply inspiring to Shannon and I. We love hiking, so our dream this summer is to “nerd out”, so to speak, on backpacking some of the National Parks. We’ve always loved traveling. We spent a month in Iceland during the process of writing the album, so there’s always been this healing connection between nature and music we can’t seem to get enough of.