It's about 7 PM, if I recall correctly, on a Tuesday night. The three members that make up Hawthorne Heights are sitting in the back lounge of The Catalyst, the premiere venue in the small beach town of Santa Cruz, and they seem like they couldn't be happier. They're drinking coffee, eating pizza, and chatting with one another. Three guys who genuinely seem to love what they're doing.
This time around, the band decided to change things up and presented fans with a tour dubbed "Stripped Down To The Bone". Vocalist/guitarist JT Woodruff, bassist Matt Ridenour, and guitarist Mark McMillon are preparing to take the stage and jam through an acoustic hour and half set that spans the entire career of the band. Before they took the stage, however, we all chatted about what it was like to revisit the songs on The Silence In Black and White in the studio after several years, the concept behind their most recent album Zero, and much more. Check out the interview below.
This is the Stripped Down To The Bone tour. It seems like the acoustic music has been really awesome for you guys in terms of the recent releases and tours. What first prompted you guys to want to do an acoustic tour?
JT: We did a couple years back and just had a lot of fun. When you tour for over a decade, you have to create new ways to do things, or it gets monotonous. Not just for you, but for the fans. One way to do that is change up the way you play songs, change up the songs you play, and we kind of did both on this tour, which has been a lot of fun. And it’s great to sit on a little chair and strum the acoustic guitar for once.
What was the process like for you guys when re-recording The Silence In Black and White on an acoustic release? I ask this in the sense of what was it like to revisit those songs after so many years in a studio setting?
JT: It was a lot of fun for that exact reason. We were revisiting it. Some of those songs we hadn’t thought about in a long time because we don’t listen to our own album recreationally. (laughs) Some of those songs we haven’t played ever since we wrote and recorded that album. For some of them, that was the first and only time that we played them. It was a lot of fun. It brought a lot of memories [back], but it also made you realize what you were thinking when you wrote the songs. It kind of made us wonder why the hell we hadn’t played some of the songs before.
I think that whenever an artist makes an album, there’s always those few songs that never make it through to the live set. What songs did you guys have that feeling with when you went back to them?
JT: Definitely the last song on the album, “Speeding Up The Octaves”. Another song was called “Sandpaper and Silk”. Those were two songs that we played very little.
Mark: “Sandpaper” is a song we’d never played.
JT: It was cool to see the fans reactions because if they have been with us for ten years, they know damn well that we haven’t played that song. That was definitely one of the highlights: for us to play a song that they had never seen played live.
The only other question I have about SIBAW is in regards to the ten-year tour. I saw you guys play the album in San Francisco last summer, and it was great. Since you’re going out and playing the same album night after night, is there anything you guys have to do to keep the experience fresh each night?
JT: In one way, it’s liberating because our set list is already made for us. We created the album, and it already has a set list to it. It’s cool because that’s one of the main arguments within a band, which is “what kind of set list are we going to play on this tour? What songs are on it?”
As far as getting monotonous, we play a different city every night, so that changes it. We play to different people every night, so that also changes it. What we’re looking for is fan reaction. We, as songwriters and musicians, are not the fame type that just feel whatever we do is golden. Whatever the fans enjoy is exactly what our job is.
Let’s talk a little bit about Zero. I thought it was easily the strongest album you guys have released thus far. I read that the concept is about a group of characters entitled the Zero Collective. Can you explain a little bit more about these characters and the story that they encounter?
JT: Yeah! It’s very similar to the tales of the downfall of a situation. It’s not necessarily [the tales of] governmental takeover, but the downfall of everything we know in the confines of government. It’s not political, while still being political. It’s about a group of people who meet because they’re all from the same town, all going through the same thing. There’s a tiny bit of a love story between two of the characters, which kind of meanders through each song, which leads from a somber tone to a very triumphant tone. It was really fun to come up with that and write it from that point of view, because that’s definitely something that we’ve never done and were looking to do.
You guys worked with Brian Virtue on Zero. In your opinion, what did he bring to the table as a producer in order to help you guys bring the songs to life?
Matt: He’s my favorite Democrat on the planet. (everyone laughs) He comes from a different kind of school than we’ve come from. He’s done big rock records and stuff like that. We come from [the background of] “oh this’d be cool!” and he’s like “um…try this thing” because we see different things. I think that every time we get with a producer or anything like that, we’ve been playing together for so long, that I think we know “okay, if we bring this, this guy’s going to like it”. It’s just good to change that up with another party who hears things first time and goes “hmm. That parts not very cool.” And then just go from there.
Mark: I liked his approach. I think we’ve gotten used to [the approach of] you go in, you demo the songs, and then immediately after pre-production, you cut the drums. Then you cut the guitars and bass, and then it’s very separated. We got in, and pre-production and recording were kind of all in the same thing. We pre-pro’ed in a room together, and then when it was time to cut drums, we actually played with the drums. It was very easy for everyone to re-write their parts and work that way.
Matt: We also didn’t get a “do the drums for all the songs, do the bass for all the songs”. It made it nice. Sometimes, at the end of a recording session when you do it like that, basically the last two weeks are just JT’s vocals getting annihilated every day, ten hours a day.
Mark: With the way that we tracked it, too, he got to have a lot more time to work on vocal themes, arrangements, and lyrics as everything was moving along. By the time we were ready to track vocals, he had more ideas.
Matt: For me, personally, bass is easy. I could probably get through a song in like two or three takes. If you do it like that, it’s just like “alright! Onto the next song!” Two or three takes and so on. By the end, you just don’t even care. You stop thinking about the song. You become part of an assembly line where you’re just trying to get the song done. It still took me like two or three takes, but it would be like “okay, let’s do bass on this song”, and I could really hone myself in.
With all of the touring that you’ve been up to, do you have any plans right now in regards to future music? If so, what can listeners expect?
JT: Definitely. We’re going to take a break from the road through a lot of the summer, and work on the last EP in the trilogy, and some songs for a new full-length as well. We’re definitely working on new music in-between being on the road.
The next two questions, just as a head’s up, I ask to every artist that I interview. First, what kind of message, if any, would you like fans to walk away with after listening to your music?
JT: For me personally, it’s a message of hope. A lot of this stuff is written from a dark point of view, but it always has a tiny bit of light to it, which I feel is pretty important. If you’re not helping people, you’re hurting people. From the lyrical point of view, I definitely want people to understand that every situation gets better and that nothing is permanent and final.
Matt: I’d like people to know that if you start a band in your guitar player’s Mom’s basement, you can tour on it ten years later.
Mark: Best serious answer, and the best humorous answer. Basically, just that we’ve been doing this for a long time. In the music industry, I think it’s no secret that it’s an awful industry to make money in now. We feel very fortunate that we still have a very supportive fan base, and that this many years later, we can be out here in California eating pizza and drinking good coffee, while it’s snowing in Ohio, doing something that we love to do.
JT: And that you can be in a band that doesn’t do drugs. It can happen!
What does music mean to you?
JT: To me, music means comfort. It means having some place to go, whether you’re sitting in your room listening to an album that can take you to California, or can take you back home when you’re traveling, or to a place in time when someone that you loved was still alive, I think music is the only thing can really do that.
Matt: To me… if you look at the movie industry, I’d probably say that the majority of people are seeing the most popular movies. There’s about six of them at a time. Music is literally endless. If you can’t find any kind of music you like, you’re insane. There is literally every type of music for every type of person, every type of mood. You’ve got to find it, maybe, but that’s an Internet search away. This is the one industry where you can hone your taste to “this”, and then find out others from this band and that band, which I think is cool. It’s cured my boredom for my whole life.
Mark: I think it’s a cure for boredom. It’s just life. I don’t know a better answer than that. (laughs)
This has been another Shameless Promotion.