“Let’s go upstairs and make sure we can see the whole city while we chat.”
That’s Tyler Williams, drummer for The Head And The Heart, speaking to fellow band member Jonathan Russell and myself in the lobby of The Quirk Hotel almost instinctively after the first music question was asked.
This article was featured in RVAMag #27: Winter 2016. You can read all of issue #27 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
We had arrived here in the heart of downtown Richmond to chat about the band’s new record, Signs Of Light, their time apart from the band the last few years, and the maturation of their folk rock sound, but after just seconds of talking, it was clear the band’s attention was on something else that evening.
“Can you tell we’re excited to talk about the record,” Russell joked shortly after we grab a table at the rooftop bar. “Don’t get me wrong. This new record is very important to both of us, but we’re only halfway through the album cycle and all the promotional stuff for it. You just find yourself talking about the same things over and over again and you just want to talk about something else. Like The Shins. You just end up wanting to talk about The Shins instead of The Head And The Heart.”
So we did. We pushed The Head And The Heart aside and discussed The Shins for a while, specifically their second record Chutes Too Narrow. From there, the conversation moved to Bat For Lashes’ new record The Bride which Williams had become enamored with recently. The topic jumping continued as the duo discussed Wilco, Santigold, and finally The Band, which led to Russell smiling about driving on Route 5 at night with a Dylan record playing in his car. Before long, the conversation had ventured its way back into Head And The Heart territory as the two discussed the mindset behind the new direction on their own record, something they both admit was natural, yet scary at times.
“I had to have friends calm me down because it didn’t sound like the first record,” Russell revealed. “You get used to what you think your band sounds like or even what your own voice sounds like so it’s jarring when it changes.” Russell continued by describing it as an exciting time as he knew they were making an honest representation of who they were and where they were in life, but it did change the way he viewed the rest of their music. “That first record ended up sounding like a demo to me which is crazy,” Russell said before his co-hort quickly pointed out that the album was designed to be exactly that.
“That first record was just supposed to be this thing that we used to book shows around town,” Williams revealed. “It just took on a life of its own and before we knew it, we were lumped in with this ‘folk rock’ movement even though I never felt like we fit in with them. Our record sounded like it did because we had limited recording time and we were all limited musicians. It was bound to change and grow as we used better resources and became better at our instruments.”
That jump didn’t happen with their second record though, 2013’s Let’s Be Still, as the band found themselves travelling further into a roots rock rabbit hole, but to both Williams and Russell, this was due to the circumstance. “We had two months after our last show before we were supposed to be in the studio to record our first fuckin’ song,” Russell lamented. “That’s insane. It was no time to live so what happened was we just made a record about being in a band that travels. It’s a total cliché for a reason and we fell into it because we didn’t have time to get out of this bubble from being on the road so much.”
Popping that bubble became a priority for the band and as the touring began to wind down in 2014, all six members of the band made plans to take a break and get some perspective. “We just had to go back to doing our own shit and living our lives for a while,” Williams added. “Otherwise, we don’t have anything to talk about and I don’t just mean in music. We didn’t want to stay the same people on the road every year, never growing.”
For Russell, he spent time travelling to gain perspective. He bought a van, travelled to California, and ended up writing there in a rented house that quickly became a makeshift studio. Following that, he went down to Haiti to do work with Artists For Peace And Justice, an experience he describes as an “overwhelming,” before ending up in Mississippi to visit family.
“I just kept travelling,” he said, “but not with the same eleven person troupe day in and day out. I just went out and lived life wherever I could and it really helped me realize how much I had grown since we had formed the band. It was eye-opening and frankly overdue.”
Williams found solace during the break in Richmond, specifically the local music scene. He formed local supergroup Avers and spent countless hours at Montrose Studios not only cultivating the band’s sound, but also learning more about the process of music. “Doing those two records in the break really helped inform me how to make a record,” he stated. “I learned how to prioritize sounds and parts, as well as what creates unique tones and different styles of music. It was such an inspiration for me. Being able to make a completely different record with a different band.” In addition to a completely new band, he also began a management company with local personality Brandon Crowe after helping to guide a young artist in town.
“Around May of 2015, Lucy [Dacus] sent me her record,” he explained. “I instantly fell in love with it. I thought it was a brilliant piece of work. The emotion and the openness of it was so evocative and she was speaking with such wisdom at a young age.” Williams started to give Dacus advice around this time, while also sharing her music with random people in his life. By November, his guidance officially morphed into a managerial relationship with the young musician that’s still in effect a year later.
For Williams, Richmond became a place to explore all aspects of music and examine the different philosophies and approaches that each artist utilized, whereas for Russell, Richmond became a place for him to collect his thoughts after a world of travelling. “It was nice to just go home and go for a walk in a familiar area,” he described. “It could be a five minute walk just around the corner of my place, but it’s so refreshing and there’s nothing like it in the world.”
By this point, it was clear the duo had exhausted their talking points on the new record and the rest of the band, save going song-by-song in examination. “I couldn’t even do that if I tried,” Russell exclaimed before slamming his drink down on the table. “I write these songs and I just have nothing to say about them five months later because I already said what I needed to say.” Instead, the conversation took on a new life as the duo excitedly chattered about their love of Richmond.
“Just look around you,” Williams directed. “The architecture and antiquity that exists here. It’s comforting whether you’re walking a street or sitting on a rooftop. Richmond really is this special town and that’s something a lot of people don’t even consider until they’re away from the city for a while.”
It’s not just the road that gives Williams this perspective though, but also his days living in Seattle during the band’s nascent period as well as time spent in Nashville for recording. “I lived in other places long enough to know that what Richmond has is actually special and not just fake spirit,” he said. “When I moved to Seattle for the band, it was different. Nobody was comfortable with themselves. It’s a very uptight place. You can’t rib someone or mess around without them getting very offended. That doesn’t sit well with me. I want people who don’t take themselves too seriously and can learn to interact with people so they can grow.”
Russell agreed with his sentiments adding how people are just more secure in Richmond than in other places he’s lived. “A lot of those people in other cities aren’t and it’s not a good thing to be around,” he continued. “East Coasters, our humor is partly based in arrogance from being secure. That’s not the vibe over there.” Those thoughts may be surprising to those who remember the band was formed in Seattle by a majority of West Coasters, but Russell was quick to point out how the difference is something he actually wants in the band. “I’m glad we have that East versus West dichotomy,” he remarked. “It made me a more well-rounded person and I’m sure them too, but at the end of the day, I’d just rather be back in Richmond.”
Williams spoke of the two’s time living in Nashville with a similar outlook, though much more focused on specific instances. “When you walk into a coffee shop in Nashville, everyone turns their head,” Williams relates. “They stare you down and wonder if they know you. They’re judging you and wondering if they should talk to you or connect with you. ‘That guy looks like someone I should know, maybe I should I talk to them.’ You can feel it instantly and it’s not a comfortable feeling. That would never fly in Richmond.”
In Richmond, the two feel more connected, even though Russell is the first to admit he feels like he “lives in a tower on the outside of town.” He doesn’t spend long bemoaning his outsider status though for as soon as Williams tells him new shops are opening up around his ‘tower,’ Russell is quick to offer some snark. “Fuck that store,” he laughs. “I’ll picket it. You wait and see. They don’t need to change anything.”
Of the two, Williams lives the more connected Richmond lifestyle, constantly weaving in and out of musical circles when he’s in town, but that’s not to say Russell is holed up and antisocial. “Tyler’s normally my barometer,” he says as Williams stifles a laugh. “Sometimes, when I’m feeling like I’ve been too reclusive, I’ll just text him asking where the humans are and I’ll meet up with him to get my social fix. Richmond’s good like that. It can be really what you want it to be and the people let it be that way which is the best part.” Both are well-versed in the musical scene though with plenty of bands and artists they admire like The Wimps and Andrew Carter. The two even spend considerable time, in the conversation alone, pondering what happened to this-or-that band, some from almost a decade ago, before collapsing in a chair saying “Man, that EP they put out was amazing! I wish they were still around.”
For almost as long as they discussed the new record, the two went back and forth over bands in the city, as well as new shows coming to town and the expansion of local radio stations. Each new topic brought on a new wave of hurried excitement before the two exhausted every topic and were left rotating their heads to take in the full view of the city. It was clear that Richmond was not only the duo’s home, but also their vital lifeblood and their indirect inspiration. We won’t see a song entitled “RVA Skyscrapers” anytime soon from the band, but that doesn’t mean the city’s vibrant atmosphere doesn’t inform every word and note that flows out of the two.
“Ultimately, it comes down to this,” Russell concluded.” We can live anywhere we want, but we live in Richmond because we fuckin’ love Richmond. We wouldn’t be who we are if I couldn’t take that five minute stroll or Tyler couldn’t spend time behind a local studio, and we wouldn’t have made this music if we didn’t have Richmond giving us what we needed out of life.”
After making his point, he looked across the table for an endorsement, but only found the back of Williams’ head as he looked around the city.
“Gorgeous day,” Williams interrupts. “Just look at the city. What a city.”
Words by Doug Nunnally