The Head and the Heart Out of the Ashes

Curtis Wave Millard

By Andrew Kruse-Ross

The Great Recession made an impact on many areas of American life, but those born after the baby boomers were left with a unique reality: those born of Gen X and beyond would likely be the first generations since the Great Depression that would not have it better, try as they might, than their parents did. But from great pessimism comes great spirit. During the Great Depression, people reached for instruments thus beginning what many consider the start of American folk music. Is it any wonder that today, with the dust of the Great Recession still settling, that people again have turned to the genre to champion songs of perseverance?

One band leading the indie folk charge is The Head and the Heart, a six-piece formed in Seattle. The group, which got its start playing open mic nights is known for their blend of lush lyrics by multiple vocalists combined with exacting instrumentalism. The Head and the Heart have opened for Death Cab, for Cutie and Dave Matthews, been featured on “Austin City Limits,” and appeared on late night television.

Now, following their sophomore effort “Let’s Be Still,” The Head and the Heart visit Green Bay’s Meyer Theatre on Sept. 21.

We caught up with the band’s drummer, Tyler Williams, to discuss the band’s unusual beginnings, songwriting, and the label of Recession Rock.

The Head and the HeartSCENE:  For the band, will this be the first time that you’re coming up this far north?

Tyler Williams:  It will be the first time in Green Bay, for sure!  We’ve done Canadian tours before, those are north, but Wisconsin yes, that’s the farthest north.

SCENE:  Well, that’s a very Wisconsinite way of thinking, that we are the center of the universe, yes!  (laughter)  I know you’ve been in Chicago quite a few times, so having you here in Green Bay, for the first time, will be great!

I’d like to talk about your start with the band.  I understand that you were actually in another band called Prabir and the Substitutes.

TW:  We were just touring the East Coast, but we never really took off. Then I quit that and moved out to Seattle.

SCENE:  I understand that you were sent some music, and that persuaded you to head out there?

TW:  Kenny had an acoustic version, and it sounded exactly like what I wanted.  Jon and I actually had played in bands after high school; we went to high school together, and I had moved out there after he joined [the band], so that was my connection to Seattle.

SCENE:  Once you headed out there and became a member … the early days of the band are often described as ‘six strangers coming together and gelling over a series of open mic nights.’  Is that really how it was for you?

TW:  (laughing) Yeah that pretty much describes it! As ridiculous as that sounds, that was pretty much true.  Kenny and Jon, they didn’t know each other before open mic night.  And then Chris, when he came on board, he was the bartender at that open mic night.

It was a good experiment for what worked in song writing.  I think that really shaped that perception for us.

SCENE:  How different is being a member of this band, not so much in terms of success, but as a large group, that had to gel. How different was this experience when compared to your experiences of other bands?

TW:  It is definitely interesting in that we’re all very different from each other.  We all have very different personalities, but we compliment each other.  We’re all bringing different things.  In the past, you were playing with your buddies from high school.  It seems fated that this was definitely more like we were supposed to be together, in some sort of strange mash-up.  It just seems so weird to look back and remember how that happened.

We’re all equals.  We all write the songs, we’re very much a democracy, and that helps keep our relationships alive.

SCENE:  How does a typical H & H song come together?  How does that process work and develop for all of you?  You have so many people involved with that,  including three people that could be the lead singer, so how do you bring it all together?

TW:  Usually one of us will bring in an idea, we’ll have a half-finished song, not really structured properly, and all six of us will edit and make suggestions on it.  It’s about finding out what makes you light up.  Usually the best songs are the quickest songs that come together.

SCENE:  Where everything just seems to come together right off the bat?

TW:  Yeah, those usually end up being my favorite songs.

SCENE:  In trying to understand your earlier days, Seattle really seems to have embraced you as being their band.  You don’t seem to have toured extensively, as a lot of bands do.  They tour night after night after night trying to sell CDs.  Did you ever have to do that?

TW:  We started to arrange little runs in Salt Lake City, every other month.  We released the record in June 2010 and then we did a Capital Hill block party that summer, we did a Bumbershoot release.  There is such an infrastructure of music in Seattle that, I think, to be embraced by the local community there, people are going to hear about you.

It can change your career, and make your dreams come true.  To be embraced by so many people so quickly, and having record stores consistently selling out of our CDs, a hundred every four days, it caught the attention of so many different people on a more national level.  So we didn’t really have to tour too much before we took off.

We went down to California with another Seattle band where we did our second tour, literally, our second tour ever and we had already been talking to record labels, like Warner Bros.  So two, three months after having put that record out, it happened very, very quickly.  I had moved to Seattle in September 2009, and one year later, we were signed to Sub Pop.

SCENE:  You stayed close to home, then. Sub Pop is a Seattle label as well, correct?

TW:  Yes, it is!  They put out Nirvana’s “Bleach,” and some really great bands, so it’s awesome to be a part of that.

SCENE:  The band’s music has, at times,  has been described as, or stemming from the recession of 2008.  The term ‘recession rock’ has been used.  I don’t know if that term has really caught on yet or not, but is that something that you’re familiar with, and can explain in a little more detail?

TW:  That was such a bad experience for everyone that was our age; it was such a weird time.  All our parents were freaking out, every one was bummed out, but when we all started playing in the band, we wanted to be something that people could feel good about.  Like the song “Lost in My Mind.”  I don’t think we intentionally wrote it to be about the recession genre, but when Jon and I sat down and wrote it, we originally took it apart and put it back together, and that was the result.

SCENE:  That’s a great answer.  There does seem to be a hint of perseverance to your music, but it isn’t over-hyped optimism either.  I’m not always in agreement with having music labeled, per se, but this one really seemed to fit.

TW:  Our first record definitely had that tinge to it!  Since time has gone on, people seem to be doing a little better, we’re feeling that recession less and less.  Things seem to be doing better and better.

SCENE:  That leads into my next question: Josiah, at some point, had referred to that first album as being somewhat idealist, and maybe slightly naïve when comparing it to the new record.   Do you have an opinion on how the band has grown, have you seen maturity from the first album to this new one?

TW:  Definitely!  We’re always growing as people, we’re always changing, our feelings are always changing, and we’re also growing through our writing.  What we write is exactly who we are as people, and when we write,  we are honoring ourselves as people.  We don’t want to put something out there that isn’t representative of who we are.

With that first record, we all just wanted it all to come together.  With that first record, we all were ready to come together, to find something new, and on the second record, we found our dream and here’s the reality of finding this dream.

SCENE:  You’ve performed on ‘Austin City Limits,’ you’ve done Lollapalooza,  toured Australia, “Late Night with Letterman,” etc.  Is there a favorite moment that’s crystalized in your head, with the ‘we’ve really  made it’ type of moment?

TW:  It’s funny, I keep replaying it in my head, and it’s like ‘Whoa!  This is really happening!’  I think the moment where I started to realize the, ‘This is really happening,’ was the most recent one where we played Hollywood Bowl, and we received a standing ovation from something like 15,000 people.

SCENE:  Wow, and this just happened the other day?

TW:  Yeah, this past Sunday night!  It’s probably my favorite moment, ever!  We’re all still on a high from that!

I think a moment where I realized that ‘this was really happening,’ in the beginning, was when we opened for Vampire Weekend in Seattle.  There were some managers there, a couple of labels, but what really got me was the kids in the crowd.  They had never heard of us, but they were instantly relating and giving us that energy back.  We took about 200 beanies out into the lobby and as people were leaving, we just started passing them out, and people were so excited.  I think then I realized that this was really big, and was going to be a lot bigger than Seattle.

SCENE:  Well, our time is up!  We’re really looking forward to having you in Green Bay, and I hope you have more of those great moments!  Best of luck to you, Tyler.

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