Recommended If You Like: Cage the Elephant, Atlas Genius, Catfish & the Bottlemen
Alternative rock music, in its most traditional sense, is hailed as deviating from “typical” rock sounds, and inserting its own inimitability to the genre (hence, alternative). Through the growing popularity of the O.G. subgenre, “alternative radio” has wiggled its way into the mainstream, curating what seems to be an amalgamation of similar-sounding songs from so-called “unique” bands. “Alternative” rock music no longer feels true to its original purpose — it has succumbed to the ideology of mainstream appeal.
But can this be a bad thing? Is it possible to be grateful for alt-rock’s mainstream emergence, so that we know what we like or don’t like? Alternative radio, in all of its ubiquity, has given us a carefully crafted sound that is admittedly delightful to the ears. Moreover, alternative rock is good for one major thing: continuously changing and deviating from the norms of music. So, though it may seem as though alternative music is assimilating, there is always something new happening. And Mainland, an alt-rock outfit from New York City, is what’s happening now.
Mainland finds themselves teetering along the edge of mainstream ubiquity and intriguing newness; refreshingly offering vintage instrumentation with more contemporary alt vocal tones. Their lyricism is nuanced with influences from both Los Angeles and New York, both places where they claim stake, and have ultimately proved Mainland to be captivating storytellers within the genre. Atwood Magazine recently caught up with Jordan Topf, the group’s lead vocalist. Thoughtful and erudite, Topf elucidated everything from the band’s love of vintage sounds, their bicoastal inspirations, and never giving up on their aspirations.
Watch: Outcast” – Mainland
A CONVERSATION WITH MAINLAND
Atwood Magazine: Good to meet you! So, when did you first get interested in music?
Jordan Topf: My dad played me some classic rock records, typical dad stuff. He showed me some classic rock records and footage from Woodstock, and I really, really liked Jimi Hendrix when I was a kid; that influenced me to pick up the guitar. I started my first band when I was getting into high school, and we did some touring in California, and we got signed to a small punk label, so that was how I first started. After that, I moved to New York and met Corey Mullee, our guitar player, and started Mainland.
Nice. So you were raised in California, and moved to New York later?
Jordan: Yeah, I moved to New York in ‘09, and started Mainland in 2011. We were kind of doing it part-time for a while, and then when everyone was out of college we put out Shiner, the first EP we did. Then we bought a van, and were just doing everything ourselves, and then we recorded some covers and started building some buzz around the local New York scene before we were discovered by 300 [Entertainment], and then we signed with 300. But it was about four years of playing in New York before any of that happened. We really cut our teeth locally before we got signed.
Got it. So, from what I’ve read about you guys, it seems like you cite a lot of your influences in the synthy, goth-y type stuff, like Depeche Mode, New Order, the Cure; how do you feel like you best emulate that inspiration that you have?
Jordan: Well I think [those bands] have a really unique way about singing about relationships and heartbreak and internal struggles, and I think that we channel that in our own sort of way. I think that the way we channel those bands is the way that we sing about love and daily life. I personally love how Robert Smith [of The Cure] sings about being heartbroken, [and] how he puts his stories out there so honestly for people to digest. You know?
Definitely. So what elements do you like to add to your own songs to distinguish them as a “token” Mainland track?
Jordan: We love using vintage guitars, and — this is really specific — for a while I was using a Fender guitar, and I just wanted something that was “me.” We use a lot of boutique instruments, and I just try to make modern rock music with retro instruments. That’s just one thing that we do, but we’re all from California, so we all have this kind of reverb-y guitar sound, with like, a lot of New York drumbeats. [In] our song “Beggars,” we literally mimicked the sound of the subway. We just try to use retro sounding guitars, but like, in a modern-pop-influenced context.
Listen: “Beggars” – Mainland
Cool! And the album is supposedly slated for sometime this year, or it was at least, so what can we expect to hear, and how does it differ or reflect what you’ve already put out?
Jordan: We’ve put out a lot of the more energetic stuff from the record, you know, and when you get deeper into the album, there’s some more dark stuff, more songs with some piano stuff; so it goes deeper, and it diversifies instrumentally. I’d say the latter half of it is a little more chill, a little more mellow. The EP we put out in December are four of the most energetic songs, and the second half of the songs we haven’t put out yet are more diversified. It’s more stuff you can fall asleep to, or put on when you’re driving in your car at night.
We’re always pushing ourselves forward and evolving.
More evocative stuff. So you’ve lived in California and New York, and have experienced both east and west coast, and I know that “Outcast” was inspired by living in L.A.; do you feel that those separate environments have worked well with your music and inspired a lot of what you do? Do you prefer one place over the other?
Jordan: I mean, L.A. and New York both have a really unique energy to them, and I think that they’re polar opposites; and yet the people that go to both places are kind of driven people. I think spending time [in both places] — we recorded the album in L.A., and wrote the album in New York — I think it was just a necessary thing for us to grow as musicians, to experience both places and create our own sound. I like New York and L.A. for different reasons. I think L.A. is a really nice place to come; New York is a pretty rough place to live. But yeah, both of those places have definitely influenced the music; I think songs like “Outcast” definitely have that California vibe, and then “Beggars” is a straight-up homage to New York and riding the subway and seeing all the people and the places. So I think both places have definitely not allowed us to get into a creative rut and not just sound like one thing, you know? I think the album is a really diverse piece of music. I think that being in both places and traveling all the time has really allowed us to not get pigeonholed into one [spot]. I think being in both places — we’re all from California, and all moved to New York — has just really allowed us to be 100% true to ourselves and who we are. Coming back to California to record the album felt right, and it just felt really good to be back in our home state.
Listen: “Outcast” – Mainland
It’s a good comfort thing, too.
Jordan: Yeah, we wanted to be comfortable! But like, we didn’t want to be, like, making the album, and then go to the bar and get free drinks from our friends and show up late [the next day]. When we were in L.A., we were so focused because even though we’re comfortable because we’re in California, we’re also not too comfortable. We have this pact with ourselves that every recording we make, we want to record it in a different place so one never sounds the same as another. We’re always pushing ourselves forward and evolving.
That’s awesome! That’s a great idea, just to keep yourselves fresh.
Jordan: Yeah, definitely. It’s just a pact we made a little while back. The last EP we made was in Austin, and this one we made in L.A. Maybe we’ll make the next one in Iceland. I’m not sure yet.
I’ve heard good things about Iceland! And moving more into your lyrics, your songs are evocative and they tell a story, and there’s a lot of strong imagery; is there one particular lyric that you’ve written and you thought “Wow, this is so great, I’m so proud of this,” or one, looking back now, you wish you could change something about?
Jordan: Oh, um, I think one that really gets people that I’m really proud of is from the song “A Bit Out Of Time” on the EP, and there’s a lyric in that song where it says, “You and I are parallel lines.” Like, you’re with someone, or you can feel them or see them, but they’re still at a distance. That’s one that a lot of people express to me as meaning a lot to them. I’m really proud of that lyric.
Listen: “A Bit Out of Time” – Mainland
It’s so cool when you can see responses, positive responses from other people.
Jordan: Yeah, and one girl got it tattooed on her back. So that happened. And she got it in my handwriting! Tattooed on her back. That was the first fan tattoo that we’ve gotten.
That must be just really gratifying, knowing you’ve made that much of an impact on somebody.
Jordan: Yeah, I mean, that’s why we do this.
Is there any song that you feel particularly attached to; one that feels really near and dear to your heart?
Jordan: Hmm. I’m pretty attached to “Beggars,” actually, because that was the first one that I wrote for this new set of songs that we’ve been putting out. It wasn’t the first to come out, but I just have this really clear memory of [having] my notebook, and I was coming home from work on the subway, and I just wrote the lyrics to that song on the subway. That one is really close to me because it kind of encapsulates where I was two years ago. I think a lot of people can relate [to it]. It’s close to me because I have such a clear image of where I was when I wrote it. I was working in Manhattan, bartending, paying my dues.
Do something every day, just to make sure that you’re working on your passion every day.
Typical artist/musician life...
Jordan: Oh yeah. The grind, the service industry grind; so it was kind of like a self-encouraging [song], I was encouraging myself to not give up on my dream. When you’re an artist, and you’re working on this thing day to day, sometimes you go back on it and you doubt it.
But if you’re passionate about it, you should stick with it!
Jordan: Yeah, and you’re constantly telling yourself “You know, I’m doing this for a reason. There’s nothing else I would rather be doing.”
How do you hope to keep pushing yourself within the “indie” music scene, or do you feel like you associate with the indie music scene at all? I suppose “indie” is a broad term.
Jordan: All we can do is keep writing the right songs, and touring around. We’re working on writing stuff right now, and playing as many shows as we can, and putting out cool videos, but yeah, basically all you can do is work on something every single day. Do something every day, just to make sure that you’re working on your passion every day. It’ll go somewhere if you do that.
Jordan: Yeah, and making friends with cool bands. We’ve been spending a little bit more time in California recently, and we’ve friended some bands. We did a show in Hollywood [on 8/15] and we were trying out some new songs, and I’ve been staying with the singer of 3OH!3; he let me stay at his house. So, you know, just making friends with people, and expanding the horizons.
It’s all about who you know!
Jordan: Yeah, and having something to show for it. Because you could know everyone in the world, but have nothing to say.
True! What’s the point if there’s no meaning behind it? So you’ve toured with some pretty impressive artists – Atlas Genius, Catfish & the Bottlemen – is there anyone that you have as your “pinnacle” artist; someone you would really love to tour with at some point?
Jordan: We’re big fans of Cage the Elephant; we’d love to tour with them. They would be really cool; we really like what they do, and it would be super fun. I’m really liking what LANY is doing. I don’t know, we’ve been really fortunate; we’ve actually played with a lot of big alternative rock bands. I think it would be cool to open for Lana Del Rey.
What is the one thing you hope that Mainland will be remembered or recognized for, when all is said and done?
Jordan: Timeless rock and roll songs. Timeless songs. I would love to be able to walk into a bar when I’m like, 80, and find our song on the jukebox.
That would be really cool!
Jordan: I saw it the other night, actually; one of our songs was on a TouchTunes jukebox.
Jordan: Yeah, it was cool. But I would love to be remembered as a band that wrote really timeless songs; songs that you could hear in twenty years, and they’re still great, you know? They’re not just like a “fad” of the era.
Something that’s transcending time and genres.
Jordan: Yeah, exactly. Timeless songs. Period.
Timelessness is a feat sought by every artist. To be memorialized for one’s art is the highest form of flattery; to be known for something that so directly reflects who you are is an incomparable feeling. Mainland is chugging toward that elusive goal, continuing to pick up steam with each exciting new release. With a full-length album slated for later this year, Mainland is not an act to be ignored. With the opportunity to realize their dream of timelessness and explode into super-stardom, the group’s balanced dichotomy of old and new sounds prove Mainland to be the next modernly timeless band.
Cover Photo: Mainland © Jacqueline Harriet