Hawthorne Heights. Photo: Jeff Chenault
Formed in 2001 in Dayton, Ohio, Hawthorne Heights has become a scene staple, holding strong after 12 years. Weathering more than their fair share of hurdles, including label disputes and the unfortunate loss of friend, guitarist and screamer Casey Calvert, nothing has managed to keep them from playing the music they love. Preparing the release of a new record, the dystopian-based concept album Zero, Hawthorne Heights is also returning to Warped Tour, coming to the Utah State Fairpark on June 29. We caught up with vocalist and guitarist JT Woodruff in-between shows on their way to the tour start in Seattle to talk about their new album and what it's like being part of Warped Tour.
SLUG: Let’s talk about your new album. How would you characterize Zero? Did you go in the album with any particular goal in mind?
Woodruff: We’ve had the idea bouncing around for a while now to create a concept and then work the songs around that concept, but without being too involved. It’s not some sort of crazy opus or anything like that, they’re still regular-sounding songs that lyrically and thematically fit a certain box. We’re really happy with the way it turned out, and I think that even if people didn’t know [it was a concept album], I think that they would understand that it’s a Hawthorne Heights album anyway.
SLUG: What would you say the response has been to the new material so far?
Woodruff: We’ve only posted three songs, and every time we post them, our fans are going crazy and really liking the sound, liking the vibe. As far as the people who have been supporting us forever, they all really like it and that really matters to us. We’re really happy with it as well. After you spend six months writing a record and another two recording it, you always want to be happy with it. It doesn’t come out for another couple of weeks––most people haven’t heard it in its entirety or anything like that, so we’ll know a little more later. So far, so good!
SLUG: After self-releasing both the Hate and Hope EPs, what made the band decide to sign with Red River Entertainment?
Woodruff: We wanted to do a full-length because we were writing this thing and we knew that it wasn’t going to fit our third EP. There will be a third EP, just not right now. We knew that we needed to change [things] up a bit, and we wanted to use somebody that believed in our band but also had a lot better distribution than we could get ourselves. We’re focusing on touring, writing, stuff like that, and we don’t want to also be focusing on single-handedly calling Best Buy or Target and begging them to get our CD in there. Red River has great distribution through Sony RED, and we sat down with the owner Bob Frank and talked to him about our goals and what we wanted to do. He had a tremendous amount of respect for our band and what we’ve done in the past, and that meant a lot to us. He didn’t want to touch our music or anything like that, he didn’t want to mess with our creativity and he understood what we wanted to do. He’s been great to work with.
SLUG: Aside from the unfortunate controversy over rewards packages, how would you describe the response to the Hawthorne Heights PledgeMusic project? How was the whole experience for you?
Woodruff: I think it’s been really cool. A lot of people don’t know how to react to “crowdsourcing” or “crowdfunding” and that really wasn’t what we were doing to begin with. We were just running a preorder through Pledge––they didn’t fund the album. We were already in the studio, so instead of running a preorder off of our website, we used Pledge to do that, and we were able to give a portion to a charity that we really care about, To Write Love on Her Arms, and [Pledge] is one of the reasons that we were able to do that and tie that in, which was cool. Everybody, all the fans that were able to order, loved the packages and loved what they got, and that’s all that really matters. Everything’s been totally cool, at least from our perspective. Anytime you sell something, there’s going to be backlash one way or another because it’s going to be backlash from people that don’t want to buy it. Just like if you’re watching a commercial from a beer company that you don’t like or something like that, you’re obviously not going to be interested from the get-go and nothing really changes. As far as all of our fans and everything like that, everything’s been really cool, we tried to put together packages that they would like [so] they would have a lot of fun getting to hang out with us. I look at it as one of my favorite artists, say Tom Petty, offering a package where I got to hang out with him all day long––that [would] be amazing. Now, we’re nowhere near that size of a person or anything, but we do have fans that really enjoy our band and we were trying to offer something unique, something that was a little more of an experience [than] just, “Hey, buy our album.”
SLUG: Along some of the same notes, I’ve noticed that you and the band are incredibly active on social media, in this case apologizing directly to them over the controversy over the photo packages. Do you feel like it helps to keep so close to fans and be able to interact with them directly?
Woodruff: I think it can help and it can hurt. The only reason that I personally do that is because I legitimately do care about our fans and how our band is received. Some people put out music and they care 100% about their music and their artistic goals, but they don’t really care about social media, and that’s totally fine. I just view it a slightly different way. If somebody is supporting me, I want them to be supporting me for the right reasons and to really enjoy what I’m doing. I’m always on our Facebook, either thanking people for being on there and letting people know what we’re doing next, or if somebody views something in a way that was unintended, I also like to step in and say “Hey, no, that’s not what we were thinking whatsoever. I apologize if you viewed it that way, but that’s not how we saw it.” You don’t want to be seen as greedy, and we’re not. We’re Midwest kids from Ohio that sit out at our merch table and actually talk to our fans. There are a lot of people that just hang out on the bus and drink and that’s their rock and roll lifestyle, but that’s not us and I do not want to be perceived that way.
SLUG: One of the big announcements this year was the permanent addition of Mark McMillan to the roster. What was the reason behind finally adding him to the band as the official third guitarist? What made the band change their mind about never adding another guitarist to the roster?
Woodruff: Mark has been playing with us for about three years, so he’s definitely put his time in and he’s definitely earned our appreciation. We’ve been friends with Mark forever, since way before Hawthorne Heights, so it wasn’t like adding a stranger to the band just because he was a good guitar player. We’d already been playing with his band, we’ve toured with his band, we respect him as an artist. He’s also a great guitar player, a great guy, and a really hard worker. So we thought it was time because it wouldn’t be fair to him to not allow him to make decisions with what we’re doing, to not allow him to reap the rewards for the hard work being in the studio. It was really hard losing Casey, one of my best friends in the world, but they’re two totally different people. He’s not replacing Casey, he’s totally not the same type of guitar player, he doesn’t scream, he doesn’t even have the same role in the band. It was time and we wanted to be fair to him. He’s our friend, and we wanted to show him that we care and we appreciate all of the hard work that he’s done in the past couple years with us.
SLUG: Finally returning to Warped Tour after so long was a huge announcement. How has the preparation been? Does it feel any different going on a large festival like this versus a regular tour?
Woodruff: Yeah, it definitely does. Typically we travel light because we know how we want to sound and we know how to get that sound. During an outdoor festival, specifically one with a lot of bands, you’ve got to be able to work really quickly on the fly because you only have a half hour. We have more people with us, but we also know our setlist through and through. You have to try and figure out what songs to play when you only have a half hour. you want to play stuff that people want to hear but you also have new stuff. We definitely sat down and prepared a lot. I think we worked on this for about six weeks, getting together a couple times a week and going through all the ins-and-outs of the setlist, how to load onstage, how to load offstage, what to bring with us and what instruments to play––just everything, there’s a lot that goes into it. Warped Tour is run amazing, everybody is on a level playing field and as long as you do your part, everyone is perceived the same way and I really like that about it. We just want to be professional and not hold anybody up, cut into their set time or cut into their changeover time. We just want to be able to play our songs and then get off the stage so the next band can play their songs.
SLUG: Are you anticipating any changes or surprises after a six year hiatus from Warped?
Woodruff: I think we’re just going to try to keep it fun this year. On our end, we just want to switch up the set a bunch and play a bunch of different things. To be able to watch a bunch of bands each day is amazing as well. I’m curious to see what has changed. Kevin Lyman and Warped Tour have such a great system and they do a great job year-in and year-out putting that tour together, so I’m sure that it’s going to run like clockwork and we’re going to do our part to make sure that we don’t impede them in any way. We’re going to have a great time this summer.
SLUG: Are there any bands on the tour that you’re excited to share the stage with?
Woodruff: I’m definitely excited about Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish, I listened to them a lot growing up and really like them. Defeater, Forever Came Calling, Handguns we’ve toured with, The Story So Far I’ve never seen before and I’d love to see them, The Swellers. There’s a lot of good bands. I think it’s going to be a really good tour and I’m excited to watch the music for a change instead of just playing it. We couldn’t be happier or more excited, we’re ready to go.
SLUG: Is there anything you’d like to say to Utah fans looking forward to Warped Tour?
Woodruff: Utah is always one of our favorites places to play. We’ve made a connection there. We’ve played the Big Ass Show a couple of times, [and have played] through the various cities like Salt Lake or Provo. We’ve covered quite a bit of the cities in Utah. We really enjoy it, so I hope they come out and watch all of the stuff going on and all the bands. We’ll be ready, we’re going to play a new song or two and we should have our new album available by then, so come by and find me by our merch table and buy one.
Visit the HH website to grab a copy of “Zero” and catch up on the latest Hawthorne Heights news, and be sure to click here to pick up your tickets to Warped Tour at the Utah State Fairpark on June 29!