Porches, At Home
Aaron Maine lives alone for the first time in his life, and he’s comfortable. But his new record ‘The House’ is a document of more uncertain times.
Sitting in the jamb of the window of his Chinatown apartment, Aaron Maine slumps his shoulders with the resigned relaxation you can only feel at home. Goldenrod curtains pushed to the side, the songwriter behind Porches—cozy in a pair of black jeans, a black sweater, and slides—chainsmokes hand-rolled cigarettes out the open window. The dry breeze of a cold January morning rushes in, rustling an old towel that hangs over a microphone stand in the center of a tiny room that, until very recently served as both his bedroom and a studio space. A couple guitars stand in a corner of the room and a MIDI keyboard shares desk space with a few rack units, but otherwise it’s a pretty spare setup, lending as much openness and space as you can to a tiny downtown bedroom.
Just outside the door a narrow hallway serves as a kitchen, in which a small dining table is pushed up against a wall, a fern takes up a good portion of its usable space. There’s no buzzer, which means that when I arrived at just after 9 AM, Maine had to lean out his third story window and toss out a set of keys inside a questionably graying sock. He moved here in November 2016, first with a roommate, but after she moved out last fall, he’s lived alone for the first time in his life. If nothing else it’s, a house to call his own.
Maine explains in a low voice that he’s settled into an easy rhythm since he’s been here by himself. He’s out of bed by 9—hence his asking for me to meet him so early—makes a pour-over coffee, and then he mostly just starts recording, often going for nine or 10 hours straight. He admits there’s some loneliness inherent to such a schedule and that it promotes some unhealthy work habits (“[The studio is] always like ‘Hi, I’m here’”), but it’s been healthy mostly. “I've always been one to sprint out the door from the second I wake up,” he says. “[It’s] really nice to feel like I have a place where I'm comfortable enough to be in often.“
Even just from the way he leans into the window frame, it’s clear there’s a lot of love bound up in this place, so it would seem no coincidence that Maine’s latest record as Porches (released today on Domino) is called The House. Like his last album Pool, it’s a slow-moving collection of synth-driven pop songs, centered around the woozy brass of Maine’s voice and the abstract emoting with which he imbues his lyrics. There’s a hazy comfort to it, not unlike that which fills his home on that January morning, but, he explains, the record was finished long before he lived here, in a time that felt way a little more unsteady.
Maine, now 29 years old, estimates that he recorded 95 percent it in the only other apartment he’s inhabited in New York, a spot in the West Village, where he lived with his one-time partner, the songwriter Greta Kline. Maine played in her band, Frankie Cosmos, and she played in Porches until 2015, forming a creative constellation of characters and references that’d play out across one another’s songs. They’d borrow melodies from one another, half-nod to each others lyrics, baldly write songs about each other with barely veiled nicknames like Ronnie Ronaldo, Franklin the Flirt. But much of The House was recorded toward the end of their romantic relationship, including one song written in the empty apartment when he was gathering the last of his things. Maine is careful about discussing the details of the end. ”It wasn't like a blowout or anything,” he says “I was just there recording. It wasn't psycho-dramatic.”
The process of making the record, though, proved to be a guiding light during a fraught period. It was a portrait of a house disrupted, but it became its own shelter. “It felt really, really good to have the album be the point of reference or goal throughout everything,” he says. “It was my purpose. It helped me stay distracted or feel like I had some constant thing throughout moving here.”
Perhaps consequently, the record has an endearing off-balanceness to it. Maine says he doesn’t feel like its a “breakup record,” as such, but it channels both the uncertainty of the period of its construction and the respite that followed. The record opens with “Leave the House,” a dancefloor flirtation about getting out into the world, breathing the night air. But “Find Me,” the song that immediately follows it, opens with the lyric “I think that I’ll stay inside.” It’s unsettled, but more in a reflective way than an anxious one, there’s a sense of self-possession that runs through the record—aided by the placidity of Maine’s palette of synthesizer sounds. There’s comfort in the conflict, somehow.
Over the years, Maine has lived in a few other houses. There was that time after his first tough breakup that he fled to New Mexico, he spent six months in his aunt and uncle’s furnished garage. But most of his life was spent in a suburb about an hour north of New York City. He’s explained in the past that his childhood there was full of the usual mundane stuff, skating around aimlessly and making trips to Pizza Hut. The place is literally called Pleasantville.
Maine says that due to its proximity to the city, he was afforded a crowd of friends that was a little more tuned into music than many of his friends from other places. “I met someone at college who was like, ‘I was the only kid in my town that knew who Radiohead was,’” he explains. “I had at least six friends that were tweaking out about Hail to the Thief.”
So despite the attendant boredom that comes from spending a good portion of your young life in such a place, Maine had the occasion to play a lot of music from a young age. He went to school at SUNY Purchase, where he met an even more devoted crew of musicians, and he started the band that first generated some modest acclaim, the scuzzily recorded and endearingly named Space Ghost Cowboys. The first Porches material was recorded more or less contemporaneously to the existence of that band, and it certainly retained some of the same spirit. Up until Pool, Porches was a staple of the northeast DIY indie rock scene that’d eventually spit out such idiosyncratic songwriters as Maine’s Domino labelmate (Sandy) Alex G. Slow Dance in the Cosmos, the record that directly preceded Pool came out on Exploding in Sound, a Brooklyn-via-Boston label which also released records for scene standard-bearers like LVL UP, Speedy Ortiz, Pile, and more.
Songs like Slow Dance’s “Headsgiving” were anthems for a certain subset of kids who clung firmly to the latter side of those “Soundcloud vs. Bandcamp” memes, throat-shredding hymns that boiled over with unapologetic emotion. In sound, they owed to slowcore, 90s indie rock, and freak-folk’s baked memories of New York’s great singer-songwriters. But in lyrical content, Maine tended toward both self-laceration and staring at the stars, pondering his own insignificance while also inflating his experiences to near mythological scale. The chorus for “The Cosmos” will give you an idea of the general spirit of those recordings: “We all die / But not I / I don't live here / I live in the cosmos.“ Those recordings are built around a sort of raw probing of the universe, like climbing to the top of a mountain and shouting at God that you exist. Then when there is no answer, you kick on the distortion.
Some of that spirit dovetails with Maine’s move down to the city, and the feelings such a drastic change evoked in him. When you live in a small place, he explains, it inflates your sense of the worth of your own emotions. “[Pleasantville] was my tiny little universe, and therefore, the space I took up felt more significant,” he says. “When I moved down, my presence immediately shrunk to like a crumb.”
“A lot of that stuff I found quite embarrassing—super masculine, yelling about being sad,” he explains of his older material. “I just started to think about how obnoxious that is to hear from someone in my position.”
Pool became a conscious rejection of that feelings-forward version of his songwriting. He says he was working on that record, and The House by extension, was an attempt to make something more “tasteful and thoughtful.” Its construction was also beholden to the particularities of making music in New York, namely the restrictions on volume that come from sharing walls with strangers. Sometimes a brokenhearted lyric is delivered with a whisper instead of a scream, which makes it all the more affecting.
The House, despite the move that happened in the last stage of its construction was built under similar circumstances, pushing further into the careful, buttoned-up production that Maine first explored on Pool. Maine told me once that he’d spent every day for six months working on Pool, but it’s on The House that an obsessive approach to production has finally crystallized into something more dynamic. Pool was abstract and diffuse, which is charming in its own way, but The House’s instrumental choices feel pointed, dynamic, and self-assured. As moving as songs like “Find Me” are, they’d almost work just as well without Maine’s dizzy vocals, like half-remembered electro anthems for apparitional club spaces.
Over the last couple of years, he’s also nursed a friendship with some similarly minded songwriters, including Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes—who Maine told me several years ago was a big inspiration for his newer material—and Bryndon Cook, who records as Starchild & the New Romantic, and often plays in Solange’s live band. Both of those artists contribute to “Country,” one of The House’s standouts, a droning document of self-possession and summer idylls. Hynes says via email that he and Maine often end up writing together, due to their similar work ethics. “We connected via a temperament and obsession with creating music,” he wrote. “Both of us work in similar ways of non-stop recording... we also both drink a lot of coffee. I think he has a real gift for chord sequences that keep you interested and mournful. He's also such an amazing vocalist, which I think gets quite overlooked amongst the Porches repertoire.”
Hynes and Cook’s appearance—as well as (Sandy) Alex G’s on “Leave the House” and a handful of other guest musicians throughout—lends a fullness to the record that was less apparent on Pool. There’s a sense of community and liveliness that can only come from inviting others into your space. Hynes identified one of Maine’s talents as evoking an “isolation in music regardless of instrumentation,” but the beauty of The House is that those lonely reveries are often interrupted by the voices of his friends.
“In collaboration, depending on whose project it is, the line between ‘what they want you to do’ and ‘what you end up doing’ can either be really close or far apart,” Cook said via email. “This depends on how controlling your partner is. Aaron’s imagination is so vivid that he seems to always know what he wants but never dictates the way you are to make it fit.”
This collaborative openness gives the record a sense of life, it’s not just a single voice echoing through an empty house, but a space that’s alive with other perspectives. Its best moments evoke a sort of collective domestic bliss, warm conversation in a cozy room. All of this, it strikes me as I talk to Maine in his studio and he continues rolling more cigarettes and pouring more coffee, is a gesture toward something more human than his music offered in the past. As moving and raw as screaming your heart out on stage can be, there’s an inherent power exchange there, an unevenness between author and audience. The House is more like taking a seat in a converted bedroom and talking about the strange ways that life moves.
In the months before Pool was released, I saw a few of Maine’s solo performances that struck me as strangely confrontational in the moment. He’d wear sunglasses indoors, or adopt strange dance moves while playing alone with an acoustic guitar. It seemed an implicit rejection of the full-band rock show he’d become known for. “In that setting," he says. “I felt it was more of a conversation with the audience than the show.” Now, it’s become clear that that’s all he’s ever really wanted, space to communicate—a space of his own, with room enough to invite other people in.
“I was beating around the bush with Pool lyrically,” he says. “I think some of the imagery is really nice and pleasing and easy on the ears, but I don't think I was challenging myself lyrically or being as honest as I would have liked to have been. I feel like there's comfort on this album. The house is the safe place.”
Porches' new album The House is out now on Domino.
Brian Vu is a New York-based photographer, you can check out more of his work on his website.
Colin Joyce is an editor for Noisey and is on Twitter.