Interview: The Head and The Heart on Sub Pop, bad band names, Iron & Wine
Could this Seattle band be the next Mumford & Sons?
The Head and the Heart’s self-titled album is one of those efforts that require no effort to enjoy. Mixing layers of harmonized vocals, the band eddies cluttered and happy rhythms around solid pop melodies. It’s folky and sometimes rock, it’s sad or memorable, and cohesive.
It’s what you get when it’s members all live in one house in Seattle and spend endless hours around each other in tandem: to get signed, get that backing, and hit the road in a methodical manner. The band recently toured opening for Iron & Wine; they’re beloved by iconic indie station KEXP; they were a constant every night at SXSW. It’s not the easiest way to get famous, but it’s an effective way to get people to listen.
With a few exceptions Josiah Johnson, Kenny Henley, Chris Zasche, Charity Rose Thielen, Tyler Williams and Jonathan Russell largely bounce around the stage, from instrument to instrument; Jon, Josiah and Charity sing with irregular, eerie similarities, but add heat and cool like it was a recipe. That was the case at the Bonnaroo music festival this year, where I caught up with Williams (and a very quiet Russell) on the sidelines of the heat and dust.
What was the process of deciding on a record label, and why Sub Pop?
Sub Pop’s always been on my radar, ever since I was nine, looking at the back of [Nirvana’s] “Bleach.” It’s always been the label that you look to, even the logo’s cool. It shows what they’re about. So even as we were going through submissions, we didn’t even think we d hear from them.
But being in Seattle helped. We were talking to a lot of major labels at the time. It took [Sub Pop] a while, but I’m glad we held out for them.
What went into making that decision, though, particularly since there are still a few reasons left to sign with a major?
Our big thing was trying to maintain a lot of control and a lot of groundwork that went in to making the album, that it all didn’t become useless. We wanted a label to augment what we were already doing.
We put the record out ourselves in late June of 2010, started touring a bunch, lost our jobs because were touring a bunch, all living in one house. We did it all ourselves. We just hit Seattle hard. We’d keep adding cities around Seattle and got down to L.A. -- Josiah and Kenny are from L.A., so there were friends down there -- good stuff down there. It just seemed like there was a buzz building because we were making it to these big cities on our own. We were selling handmade denim sleeves with the burned CDs inside of ‘em before we had an actual pressing of it. We just wanted to do it in a way that connected people to it.
How’s it playing to bigger and bigger crowds, like at festivals? And I noticed you guys were definitely a sing-along band.
The other day, we were playing to 15,000 people at Millennium Park with Iron & Wine. That was the biggest crowd I think we’ve done yet. It’s kinda funny how we only just worry about what were doing on stage. Today felt like a small club.
But the sing-along thing is awesome, we’ll never not want that.
There’s three of you primarily sharing duties singing. How do you divvy up who sings what?
Whoever wrote it sings it.
And with everybody changing instruments on stage all the time, do you all want to become good at everything you can, or do you concentrate at being good at just one instrument at a time? I mean, you have such a limited time to yourselves, and on the road.
Ha, that’s something I’ve been working on for the last 15 years of my life. Going on tour with a band like the Low Anthem in Europe… they all know how to play everything. EVERYTHING. And that was kind of inspiring. When you get back to reality -- playing shows every night in America -- it’s really hard to sit down to learn a new thing or instrument.
Or write a new song.
Yeah that’s even harder.
Do you guys throw songs together pretty quickly? Does it help that you guys all live together?
I think living together… its pretty labored no matter what, it takes a while to get to a point where we feel comfortable ngouth playing ‘em live. John or Josiah will bring parts to the full band, two or three ideas or directions, bringing a little change-up. And then we all
How do you decide what you’re going to play on national television? Or do you stick to a script.
“Lost in My Mind” is our radio single, so you gotta do it. It’s what we did on “Conan” and didn’t really want to do it “Fallon.” But it just made sense. I got a lot of shit from friends who were like, “Why’d you do the same song?”
Now that you’ve hit some big goals, what are your personal goals, or what are your big plans for the next six months to a year?
We’re lining up dates for our fall headlining tour… we’re just get out to as many people as possible, and keeping this record fresh. I mean, so many people haven’t ever heard of us, or heard it. It’s more a word-of-mouth kind of thing, it’s the way we wanted it. Hopefully, we’ll have a month at the end of the year, to start writing for recording in the spring next year
I was gonna say, you guys have a sort of slow burn, like Mumford & Sons or Josh Ritter. And, y’know, no matter what you feel about those guys, everyone can agree they’ve worked their butts off.
See that goes back to the reason why we signed with sub pop. We wanted that slow growth, and we didn’t want a huge marketing campaign by some major label that was just gonna put us in front of a million people all at once. It just seemed kind of corny, kind of fake. You know?
But that’s what majors do, that’s what the album cycle is. It is kind of an artificial system. But word of mouth is it’s own cycle.
Yeah, like, “release an album every two years! You do this this this then then then… We weren’t looking for that kind of strict dictation… and it’s working out so far.
You guys have played some new songs recently, do you have more in your back pocket?
Yeah we played two new ones today, “New Jam” and “Seat Beside Me”… we’re not married to the names, obviously, we just have songs like that don’t get names until we have to name them. “Winter Song” and “Couer d'Alene” didn’t have names until we sent them to get mastered.
Did you have the same stress in the moment when you had to name the band?
I wasn’t on board quite yet when they finally decided. I think initially we were supposed to be Ladies and Gentlemen. Very neutral. But then John called me, like, We’ve got it!” Josiah came up with it… It’s weird naming a band. You could name a band anything, and as long as the music is good, it’ll shape the words of a name in time.
Yeah, like, look at Pearl Jam. Or Radiohead.
Yeah, like the worst band. Names. Ever.