Since their formation, The Head And The Heart have been doing big things. Forming in Seattle in 2009, the indie-folk sextet began by recording and releasing their debut album on their own dime and selling an unbelievable 10,000 copies at shows and through local record stores. Seattle label Sub Pop took notice, signing the band and rereleasing their self-titled debut in 2011 to an even more overwhelming reception. Since then, their fame has only grown, both through tours with everyone from Vampire Weekend and Dave Matthews to My Morning Jacket and Death Cab For Cutie, and through numerous high profile television appearances.
But the whirlwind of live performances and promotional junkets has kept the group from recording a followup album–until now. With things finally calming down at the beginning of 2013, the band’s Richmond-based members–singer/guitarist Jonathan Russell and drummer Tyler Williams–were able to return home, decompress, and soon rejoin their bandmates to record Let’s Be Still, the highly-anticipated follow-up to their self-titled debut. They released lead single “Shake” back in August, and with Let’s Be Still set for an October 15 release, the band are gearing up for a full-scale tour beginning in October. They’re playing a few festival dates before the album drops, but for the most part, Jon and Tyler are back in Richmond right now, and we caught up with them to discuss the making of the new album and what it’s like to come back to your hometown after making it big.
Since the last album, you’ve toured a lot, and it seems the crowds have gotten bigger. Going into this second album, what was different about it? Was it a different process, a different feeling for it?
Tyler: Overall, everything was pretty different. I felt that [for] the first one, we didn’t really have any resources. We were all just working as many jobs as we could to pay for it, and we wrote the songs in a limited amount of time, but this was a longer process.
Jon: It was almost more difficult because there was less limitations this time around. The first time it was like, “Well, we only have this much money, so we can record this many songs,” and we had only written that many songs. This time, we had an actual budget because we’re on a label, which is amazing, and we can be there for as long as want. That tends to make things a lot more difficult, because you have more time to second guess. It’s like, “What if we try this?” Also, I think the first time around, we didn’t really think about the songs, as in where we could take them other than how we play them live. [On] that record, how we play them live is how we played them on the record. The tempo shifts a little bit from the latter half of the record, but I think we had only been a band for about six months when we recorded that first record. So I feel we sound like a new band on this new record, and that we’ve been touring for a long time now. It sounds like a more mature, well-lubricated band on the second record.
It must be a little nerve-racking to look around and think, “We can do whatever we want, so what do we want to take from what we did before, and how do we evolve it?”
Tyler: Looking back and listening to the record now, it sounds like a very natural evolution. When we were writing the songs, we didn’t have a sense of what the whole project is going to be. We were pushing out our boundaries, and trying to expand the thing we were doing. When we finally got to [mixer] Peter [Katis’s studio] in Connecticut, he pushed those tones that we had recorded; took what we had done in Seattle and really stretched it. He kind of made it sound like the band we are now live, versus what we were in the first place.
Was it exciting to work with a producer from the jump? Was it difficult at all?
Tyler: Well, we recorded with [co-producer] Shawn [Simmons] on the first record. He basically engineered it and added some advice here and there. But working with Peter was like… when you have an idea, he just knows how to accomplish that idea. It was kind of refreshing to have someone with that knowledge.
Was that intimidating to essentially have a team take your songs and find parts of them to expand on those parts, or was that part of the fun?
Jon: It was actually more nerve-racking than fun. I always feel there should be like a separation of church and state, thinking about managers and people who are really good at specific things, but not necessarily the best person to have in the room when you’re trying to make music. When we were writing the first record, we didn’t have managers or a label or a booker, or anybody outside of the band to be nervous for us. They want to see a good record as well, but you just gotta trust the band to do what the band does. If anything, that was just sort of obnoxious.
Tyler: We sometimes had to have these talks where we were like, “You can’t come in.”
Jon: But it was also a learning experience for us to not show them a half finished song, because in my head I could hear the rest of the song. So we’d start showing our managers and A&R guys these songs [that were] halfway recorded because we would be excited, and they would be like, “Maybe we need to get them a producer.” And we would be like, ”No! [laughs] No, we are not going to work with a producer!” So that was a learning lesson for us. If you let those people in when the song isn’t quite finished, it can get a little hairy. It made it kind of tougher to just focus on recording.
Yeah, so many other opinions and concerns.
Tyler: We’re all super-opinionated people in this band.
Jon: There was no shortage of ideas on this record. We were considering working with a producer, we had a list of people we could work with. At first we thought it’d be cool, but when we started writing these songs in our practice space we were like, “There’s already enough cooks in the kitchen, one more guy who has a name and an ego is going to ruin this.” It’s like, “Give us a producer when we have played so many shows together that we don’t even want to talk to each other anymore.” Fifth record in, when no one is talking to each other, that’s when we get a producer. [laughs]
Tyler: But on the back end of the record, it felt fresh to have someone come in and mix it. I really believe in making a record with one person and then take it to another person to finish it.
A fresh set of ears.
Tyler: You’re so in the bubble that you can’t look at the music as a whole piece, because you listen to the part you labored over for months and months in each song. So when you take those songs to someone else, they don’t know the process of what’s in front of them. So then, they can really bring things out in an unbiased way in the songs. I think the songs really opened up when we brought them to Peter.
So you have been really happy with where the process has ended?
Jon: There were growing pains as well. The way that Peter works with mixing is he first mixes in and does post production things. Like, if there are cracks or left-open spaces, he’s hearing something. Sometimes we’d tell him, “No, leave that there, we meant to do that,” and other times it’s like, “Okay, I see that. Let’s try something else.” So it was nice to have him as a fresh set of ears mixing the record. But also, if we wanted to utilize him as a producer, we could. And we did, from time to time. But yeah, there were definitely some growing pains in there, because the first two or three songs, we were like, “This is not it, this is not our direction.” But that was three days into working with someone we had never really met before, and we had never worked with. It kind of took three or four weeks for me to trust that we were working with the right guy.
Tyler: We were only in there for three weeks!
[laughs] So you gotta make that decision quick!
Jon: I have to be honest–I was terrified that whole time.
Tyler: I was not terrified at all. As soon as I did hear those first couple songs, I was like, “This is what we sound like live. This is what we sound like when we play a big room.” It’s kind of more bombastic, less dry and muted. As soon as he started livening up the mixes is when I got really stoked. I’ve always been into diving headfirst into something new. You’ve got people on the back end who you have to bring forward. If there is no energy on the front, then that would never happen, and if there is nobody pulling back, then we would go too far. It’s a delicate balance.
You guys did a lot of press for the last album, going on different shows and such, but it seems like there’s a real set plan on how you’re doing PR for this record. Is this exciting for you, or kind of nerve racking?
Jon: This is the part of being in a band that I pay little attention to, in all honesty. I think if I was in a band with less involved and knowledgeable people, I’d be screwed, because I just don’t pay attention to things like that.
You kind of have blinders on?
Jon: I just focus on writing songs and performing well. In terms of following the managers on the trajectory of the record for the next two years, Tyler loves stuff like that. He’s such a business oriented brain. Josiah [Johnson], the other songwriter in the band, is also really good at that. It’s just one of my weaknesses, not one of my strengths. That’s something I’m curious about, so I’ll check in from time to time, but we trust each other so much that Josiah is like my barometer. If he thinks something isn’t a good idea, I’ll start to pay more attention, but if he’s good with it, then I just try what he’s doing. And totally not in this apathetic way–I just trust their decision-making. We have a chemistry, and a strong relationship, and you just start to trust in your bandmates, figure out what our roles are, and sometimes, know when to step back. For me, I trust the people involved in that, it’s all in good taste and we’re all on the same page. But yes, there does seem to be a grand scheme behind the push for this record. It’s fun and exciting to think about. There’s legitimate things that are going to be happening in front of this record that’s coming out, but as I said, that’s not the part of band life that I tend to latch on to.
It’s like you are on a moving train and you can’t really stop it.
Jon: I know it’s going to go there anyway, so I might as well get on.
When I heard the first album, it just seemed like you guys were excited to be a band and excited about life and just grabbing at it. The whole record felt like something you’d listen to driving cross country into a new adventure.
Jon: We had all just moved to a new city, and we were all fresh new buddies, and the world was full of bliss.
The new album does seem to have heavier themes to it. Some of them were upbeat, but there is one song that was inspired by the Connecticut Sandy Hook shootings. It shows a maturity not just in the band, but in your own personalities and what you’re thinking about.
Jon: I almost didn’t want to show anybody that song, because I’m not a person who typically tries to write about such a specific thing. It’s just not one of my strengths. But even when you listen to that song, it’s not obvious that that’s what it’s about. I remember working on it, and had half of the song. I showed it to Josiah, and I was like, “Is this too out there for me? or far from what I normally do?” [And he said,] “Naw, I love these lyrics.”
Did you feel very vulnerable?
Jon: Yeah, it’s about something so real. People went through this, and it was so fucked up that you don’t want to misconstrue it, and you don’t want it to make it seem trivial or petty. You don’t want to fuck with that. That’s why I tried to keep it vague. But Josiah helped me work out the lyrics and basically made me feel like, “This is a good song, we should definitely play this.” It’s now one of my favorite songs we did on the record. It was one of the easiest ones we wrote. We had written and recorded it in two hours. Basically, I was in the booth, and then everyone came in and picked up their instruments, and it sort of just wrote itself. Other songs we did over and over again, but this one was just like, “There it is.”
I’ve seen you guys perform a few times–you played to a great crowd at Friday Cheers.
Jon: That was awesome. It was like something out of a movie, man.
When you told everyone that you had roots in Richmond, it felt like the crowd got even warmer to the band. What is that like? You used to work as a waiter in Richmond for a few years…
Jon: I worked at Subway in Cary Court for like two years, man; living out of my car.
Was that a wild feeling to look out and be in this role and situation?
Jon: It’s funny, I was at Sticky Rice a few nights ago with my date, and these two girls came up to me and they were like, “Sorry to bother you or be weird, but aren’t you in that band Head and the Heart?” and they wanted a picture. I did the picture, and that was fine. And then I was talking to my date–“This is so awkward, I’m having dinner with you and these girls come up for a picture,” and my date said, “No, that’s really awesome. You worked at Subway for two years and had been living on couches, and now you come home and people want to take a picture with you. That’s a pretty big leap.”
That’s great. You are doing really amazing work and people appreciate it. What are you most excited about in the next year?
Jon: I can’t wait to play these songs out, because I really love these songs. I’m so proud of what we did with these songs. Some of these songs I’ve had [since] before we started touring on the last record. They were written after we recorded the first record, and we didn’t have any money [to record them]. The rest of them have just been written over the course of the last three years. For so long, they were just acoustic songs, and now they’ve been worked out and have full band arrangements around them. They’re just more relevant to our lives now. The older songs were really relevant at the time–we wrote about what we were living in, and these new songs are about what we’re now living in. I’m looking forward to conveying new convictions and connecting with people on these new songs. You meet so many people who give you a completely different perspective on a song. You had no intention of trying to say this specific thing in this one song to them or to anybody. You didn’t really see it that way, and then they will be like, “Oh, this song to me means this.” And I’m like “That’s crazy, it has nothing to do with that.” But it doesn’t matter; that’s awesome. It’s doing something positive for me in this way that I could never have imagined, and I’m just excited to see that happen with these new songs.