Interview: Hawthorne Heights Frontman JT Woodruff Talks Concept Album, Warped Tour, and Crowd-Sourcing
By Natalie Perez
It's been six years since the death of Hawthorne Heights guitarist Casey Calvert, but even that great tragedy hasn't stopped the band from making the music that they love and continuing to tour in its support. Below, vocalist-guitarist JT Woodruff discusses everything that has taken his group to its new concept album, Zero--their fifth studio record overall, which is due out June 25--and looks ahead to this summer's Vans Warped Tour. RevolverMag.com will premiere the new song "Taken by the Dark" tomorrow at noon--so check back then!
REVOLVER So tell me what's it like to have been a band for 12 long years?
JT WOODRUFF That's a good question. It feels pretty good that we can be a band after 12 years. A lot of bands come and go, a lot of friends come and go, and for some reason or another, there are other bands still around. So we're all great friends, and good guys, known each other for such a long time. We're fortunate enough to be able to still be doing this and having such great fans, too.
What's the story behind your band name?
I wish I had a better story but our bass player Matt had come up with the name, after liking the two words together, so we liked how it didn't sound like one genre or anything. It just stuck with us. We didn't hate it--a lot of bands end up hating their name after a few albums, but we're a band who likes their name. I can write the words and spell them...well, that's cool. In the end, we're still happy with it.
Why call your fifth album Zero?
That's a good question as well. What we did was come up with a story, wanting to do something different this time around, never having done anything as a concept-based thing. It was always, let's sit down write some songs and see where it goes. This one does have a story behind it, it's called "Zero." These characters are called the Zero Collective, and they're called that due to representing a circle, of being continuous: no one is like everyone else, everyone is clocked in at that same position of being zero. Hopefully, it makes more sense once people can hear it--it's difficult to talk of a concept record, when there is no music to go with it. But once the record is released, everything will be making much more sense. Doing our job as being a band, the two blend well together.
Who produced Zero and what was it like working with them?
The producer for Zero is a lovely gentleman named Brian Virtue [who has worked with 30 Seconds To Mars, Chevelle, and Audioslave]. It was a great experience working with him and we recorded the album in Nashville, Tennessee, always being one of our favorite cities, never making a record there. We always recorded out in New York or Chicago or back home here in Dayton, Ohio, so getting the opportunity to record it out there in Nashville, staying there, thinking of what they had to offer, was awesome. He had shared our vision, communication was there, all the ideas were in our heads, having conversations with him, never being that far from home in case anything crazy happened. The tracking worked out well, explaining to him what we were wanting and went for it. He led us in a few directions, so you never know what will happen during that preproduction, so hearing someone else's take on it was great. We all had a good time. We never really are partiers. We focus on our music. We were thankful that there was zero drama, just jokes, good stuff, just focused on recording the songs.
Who did the cover art for Zero and does it have a meaning behind it?
The logo in general is the basic logo for the Zero character of the story. So I scribbled that symbol everywhere, so with that destroyed brick wall in the background, it shows how the town has been burnt and torn down. As an example, the characters have marked their territory by writing their mark on the wall. We had a good art director design this for us by the name of Jeff Chenault. He brought my concept to life, also doing a good job seeing my designs and songs to life. Working with him was fun, and all of the photography for the album was done by him as well. So we had wanted something basic but striking for the cover, not anything too over the top. We're not the type of band who wants themselves on the cover with a car or anything like that, because it's not us. We wanted the music to work well with what we were working with.
Why did you go the concept album route on the new album?
I guess it was just something that we had never done before after talking about it. As a band and being musicians with family and friends, you never want to go about that same territory. We're happy with who we are as songwriters and the music we play. We don't want to give our fans who have been there since the beginning, a curve ball with our music, so one way we could change it up a bit this time around was to take a concept directional approach, having the stories fit together, all the songs tied in together as well. A lot of our favorite bands had concept records, whether it'd be The Wall or American Idiot. We didn't go as far as they did but dis something like that--at heart, it's still a record, but not to go too crazy, because if you take it too far, it can get weird, then you don't understand it. We wanted the people to listen to the music, be able to sing along to the music, having the person either look into it further or just sit back and listen to it while driving around--that's how we saw our music fit with this concept.
How did you challenge yourself sound-wise to fit this concept?
One thing that we did a lot was come up with a collection of moods, to make it be like a movie soundtrack. Thinking of it a little bit differently, so we'd say like, "Let's get things we're happy with, like, a guitar riff or vocal melody," so we relied more on the lyrics and landscape of the sounds, having it be more aggressive or having something pop out at you. We experimented a lot, capturing a lot of different sounds, not instruments-wise--that was straightforward, we never used anything we hadn't used before in the past except for a brief cello moment or keyboards. Other than that, we kept it all straightforward on sound: three guitars, vocal, bass, and drums. It was a chore but fun, thinking of it all in a whole new way. Everyone wants their record to sound really well, but we wanted the bigger picture.
Did you get the album you wanted? Is everything on there that you wanted, or were there somethings that were just impossible to pull off?
I think there's always a little bit of that, but I am 100 percent happy with how everything turned out with what we had done. I did want to spend some more time doing a few more songs telling some more of the story, but you can't really relate to the songs after a while, just loosing track altogether. Like the track listing is what makes the album, where everything goes, how it's placed. Like, there were some songs that I really liked and wanted on the album, but we couldn't do it, so we're thinking of a way to tie those in as well. Everything can't make it--you have to please everyone whether it'd be within the band or the label or the managers. Sometimes you just need to step back, taking in everyone's point of view and thoughts.
Are there any collaborations or surprises on the album?
No, I would say that the only surprise is that it is a concept record. We did not collaborate with anybody, never doing that before. But doing it with a concept record may or any not work. Like, I would like to have Robert Smith or Danny Elfman do something for some songs, but we kept it basic and stripped-down, having it all deal with the band and the story.
What’s the writing and recording process for you?
JT: For me, I write all the lyrics and vocal melodies then we all help with the main parts of the songs, structures, arrangements, etc. I like being in the studio the whole time, not a lot of people like sitting in the control room, but for me it's a lot of long days because I enjoy sitting back and hearing everything. After about a week and a half or so you gota be singing so I've conditioned myself to be constructive as possible and ready to work. So we've all worked well together, keeping the studio light and less stressful, I wish I had more drama but this time it was all easy for us and worked well with the producer. So knowing what we wanted to do, made it all work for us. The only downside was that I was only allowed to drink 1 cup of coffee in the morning so my voice wasn't tightened when I sung later on. We all helped one another out, coming up with the ideas, all chipping in helping out as much as possible.
How would you say the new album compares music-wise to your previous records?
Stylistically, it's still a rock-and-roll album. It has aggression, melodies, emotional moments. We tried to touch on as much as we can, so the fans will know it's a Hawthorne Heights records and the aggressive fans will also like it. It's difficult because it's how someone hears it. Like, you could write your softest album but yet someone says it's your heaviest album, so I think it's within line of what we have done before, but there are different things this time around that have it sound more rock and roll--the hammering drums, guitars, and vocal harmonies.
It's been six years since you've played the Vans Warped Tour. How does it feel to be able to play it again?
I'd say we're extremely excited to be on this year's Warped Tour. It's been years since we were last on it back in 2007, so it's going to be a fun summer, a lot of long hot days. It's a unique experience being able to see a lot of great bands, meet the fans. It's a fun summer camp. I would always go to the Warped Tour growing up, so some of my fondest memories was that tour, so being a part of it has been a dream come true and we're happy to be back for this year. And with this new album coming out during it, we can debut some new and old songs during it. I am really looking forward to it for the band and the fans.
The first time I saw you guys was way back in 2006 when you were a part of Fall Out Boy's Black Clouds and Underdogs Tour with All American Rejects and From First To Last. Looking back at that tour and what's happened to the band since then, including the death of guitarist Casey Calvert, what comes to mind?
Some of my favorite memories are of that tour. That was the first time of doing an arena so it was awesome playing places like those, since we always played small places. Knowing Fall Out Boy on that tour, bringing us out was great, and it's great to have them back again as well. That was a good tour to see. A lot of memories, ups and downs... Losing one of your best friends was one of the hardest things we had to face, so playing these songs and shows, we had a lot of fun with him. We will always have those memories help us. Just a lot of memories, writing, recording, touring, going different places--Japan, Australia, Europe. We are true touring musicians, spending our years spreading our music in any way we can and it's been a lot of fun. I would love to make new memories with the old memories with all those bands who were a part of that tour. It was great to play those shows and love to do it again, so let's make it happen all over again!
A lot of bands lately have been playing various albums in their entirety, celebrating an anniversary of the album's release or whatever. Your 2004 debut, The Silence Is Black and White, will be marking its 10th year next year. Will you be doing anything with it?
I wouldn't say we have plans to do it yet. We want to finish out this year, but we are thinking about it and I cannot believe it's been 10 years and a great time it's been, having people sing along to those songs is just remarkable. I would love to do it but not sure on how we would do it though. There are a lot of bands who have two-to-four songs that they don't play at all or just ones that weren't fan favorites, or ones that the band never liked themselves, or having too many songs, so it would be great to dig up those memories playing those songs again. It would be really fun. As of right now, we're thinking of leaving for the Warped Tour and the new record coming out. Taking it day by day. As a musician, you don't really look that far ahead, so come June 1 2014, that will be the day to officially celebrate its anniversary. You never know what could happen. We're just happy we're still here after 10 years, and so many people like our music. It's crazy and we love it.
You guys decided to use PledgeMusic to help release this album. Why do you think artists and bands are turning to these platforms like PledgeMusic, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, to release music?
I think it's hard being a musician nowadays. Not a lot of people put value of purchasing an album, because it's everywhere from YouTube to Torrent sites. I think people are trying different things--we just hosted our preorders on that site, our label were the ones to release it for us. So we never used any crowd-funding or -sourcing, just used it for a traditional preorders. We were able to put all the funds towards a charity. It all really helped for when Casey passed away and was a great opportunity to donate to his family, and that's what I like about PledgeMusic. I don't know much about the other sites. I think everyone is at a weird time of knowing how to sell their music--people like the songs, it's a matter of how they are viewed. It's not up to us as bands--we just want to write and record the songs and play for the fans. There are people who think it's the best or the worse thing in the world or in-between, so it depends on the person.
What do you guys have planned for the rest of this year?
We're definitely going to tour this fall, which would be a lot of fun, not sure whereabouts yet. We'll be trying to get some international places, so not sure if it will be another U.S. tour just going to be promoting the new album, for the fans and the new listeners. Just hitting it hard every day after it's release.
Is there anything you want to say to close this up?
I'd really like to say thank you for checking us out. To the fans who listen to music or read, hear, watch interviews, who we've made an impact on it, it really means a lot and matters a lot to us, how our music and songs can help them in a positive way. Come see us this summer, pick up our new album--we're really excited about it and there's a story we want to tell. We're here to have fun. Think on positive times, just keep your head up, and listen to music.