Hawthorne Heights Interview

Fighting the Darkness with Hawthorne Heights

“This is our way of trying to keep our business afloat, which is Hawthorne Heights. It’s trying to service our fans. We are at heart, entertainers, and that’s what we love to do, and we’ve been building this community for 17 years, so we do want to give them something as well. But an important part of what we’re doing with this Stay Home tour is to try to give a little bit back to the venues and to the promoters at the venues that we’ve been playing for 17 years.” – JT Woodruff

In a sea of one and done live streams, Hawthorne Heights is setting out to create a virtual tour that gives fans a unique experience from city to city while supporting the venues and promoters we all love. From varied setlists, to emo trivia, to live chats, to seeing your face in the crowd, Hawthorne Heights is reserving the doom and gloom for their music and letting hope and positivity pave their path forward.

Lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist JT Woodruff talked with me about this unique experience they’re creating as well as how these unprecedented times are affecting the band and all aspects of the music business.

Smash Magazine: So, I’m excited about this tour you recently announced, Stay Home: An Unbiased View of Touring in the Year 2020. Can you tell me more about how you came up with the concept?

JT: Yeah. So, we’re what you would call a veteran band, I guess. We’ve been touring for 17 full years. So, it’s very strange to be home right now. I’ve been home since February 17th, and this is the longest stretch in 17 years that we’ve all been home consistently without any tour or anything like that. We didn’t think much of it at first, other than we were all trying to be safe and careful like anybody else. And then we started to see that this isn’t going to be as short as initially thought…

So, we’ve been trying to get something together for the past two months because we noticed tours getting pushed back and back… January is a pipe dream. I think even May is a pipe dream. So, until you can get people to max capacity in a venue, you should not be in the venue. I see some people and states allowing like 100 people in a 500 max room. But when you have to do things like that, I think it’s time to take a break and work on other things.

People don’t understand the irreparable damage that this is causing to an industry that is constantly in turmoil. It’s nearly impossible to monetize music or entertainment as it is. I’m not talking about superstars… I’m talking about everybody below superstar. It’s just hard. So, we’re just trying to do something that is mutually beneficial for everybody involved at a fair and affordable price. I know that sounds like some sort of weird politician pitch, but you know what I mean. That’s really what it boils down to. We were pretty anti-online performing before this because we thought that it sounds like the worst version of who and what you actually are because unless you have some sort of incredible recording set up or million dollar internet, it’s just never is going to be what you want it to be… So, we’re just like, ‘let’s lay low, work on songs and music back and forth, and ramp up our web store, and just see how it goes.’ That was kind of our early focus, and then we started to see the trend that this could be another full year. This could dive way deeper than anybody would have thought…

SM: And your view shifted, and the virtual tour was born.

JT: Yeah. We’re just trying to do things that are fun and that can help everybody involved now. We’re kind of a guinea pig on this. We’ve seen a lot of people doing live broadcasts across the internet, and we’ve seen a couple of people do some similar things to what we’re doing, but our spin is we’re doing two shows a day, one for the East Coast, one for the West Coast, and a joint VIP right in the middle. So, it’s a big undertaking, but we would normally be on tour, and that’s hard, so, why not try to hustle back at home and try to do what we can for people?

So at the heart of it, we’re a band that likes to play shows, but that has so many parts to it that people don’t really understand because they’re not thinking about it or not in the industry. They just want to show up and have a good time. And I totally get that. But before the fans can show up, you have the band’s manager, who is coming up with the tour ideas with the band, and then the booking agent who has to pitch the tour, and then the local promoter who has to buy the tour and rent the venue… That’s all before any sort of marketing or anything like that. So, we were trying to think about it in the exact same way. Not just ‘let’s do one big show where we keep all the money and that will be that’ because that’s what you get. You get one show. Then how do you pitch another show in three months when you’re broke again? So, for us, it’s trying to create some sort of custom tour.

SM: I actually saw you guys at Backstage Bar and Billiards almost a year ago exactly, and that’s the venue that this stream is going to support, and the juxtaposition of how things have changed from that show to the show you’re about to put on in a couple of months… it’s just crazy.

JT: It is.

SM: So, is coming up with this tour the way you’ve been coping with how things have been turned on their head?

JT: Yeah, definitely. I will tell you that one of the worst parts about being in a mid-level touring band is that you are hustling nonstop, and certain parts of your life get left in the rearview mirror, and you don’t realize it because you wake up and have to do your daily things to just try to get ahead. One of the things that we noticed is our personal relationships have strain that you don’t realize—it’s not like argumentative. It’s more like, you have a tour coming up that puts emotional strain on your family, and then when you get out on the road, that puts personal strain on yourself because you’re thinking about your family. But also, you’re trapped in a box with only three or four other people, and that’s your only outlet. So, then this other strain starts to happen midway through tour because you’re just stuck with these people. It’s like an experiment gone bad every single tour. And we’re fortunate that we’ve been able to do it for a long time. But this time home does show you how much happier you are when you do have adequate breath and mental rest, let alone get to actually sleep in your bed… So, we’ve just been trying to look at this in a positive way: it’s a forced extended vacation. And, you know, some vacations are like rainy days at the beach. Some vacation days still suck, but we’ve just been trying our best to regroup and really control what we can control because we’re not scientists. We’re not doctors. We can’t get out there and start creating vaccines, and I know that they’re trying super hard, and I commend every medical personnel and scientist out there on the front lines trying to do this. But we’re just a band. So, we’re trying to shine a light on our corner of our little world…

SM: And hopefully people will be drawn to the light.

JT: Yeah. It’s an experiment. We have no idea how many people will go to each of these separate shows. Normally, you can go by your past history when you’re doing a tour—’Okay, last time we were here, 500 people showed up, so we’d like to stay at least there, and if we can get more than that would be great.’ But there is no barometer for what we are about to do… It’s the internet, which is a vast sea of people, but there’s also so many factors, like if timing doesn’t line up with people’s schedules. So, I don’t know if five people watching an online show is good or five million. But I hope we can get as many people as we can. We kept the tickets pretty cheap. They’re 12 bucks, and all the people involved in our band’s business, the venue, and the promoter are gonna get something out of that. When these venues can’t be open and the promoters can’t be promoting shows, something is better than nothing. And it does show, at least, that we’re trying to work together and move forward instead of staying idle. And maybe that’s nothing but treading water. But I would rather tread water than sink any day. And to try and help other people benefit is always better than just trying to benefit yourself.

SM: It’s quite commendable how the music industry has come together to support one another. You’re not the only mid-level touring band trying to help each other out, and that’s amazing.

JT: It’s definitely great. It’s a little bit wild to me that you don’t see, I don’t know, Congress talking about it or anything. I know that bands come and go, it happens every single year, this just happens to be a very big test because we’ve never dealt with a pandemic in rock and roll. But these music venues are necessary to our lives—not just our life, but to the concert-goers, and to the business people who have spent their life savings opening these venues… That is what we need to be focusing on as well because they have a mortgage to pay just as anybody else does. They just need some sort of bailout or something. I don’t know what form it needs to come in. But something has to give. You can’t not allow people to be in their venue for a year and expect them to somehow come up with the money to pay for it. That’s really hard.

SM: These live streams are quite popular right now. I’ve been wondering if they’re going to go away when social distancing does or if they’re here to stay just because of what may happen to the venues. What are your thoughts on this new format sticking around once you’re able to get back on the road?

JT: For me, I don’t know if it’s a great thing to normalize. I like the idea of it being a special presentation because I do like to be in a venue seeing people, connecting on a musical level, but obviously only in safety. So, there will be a time where we live in a safe society again and there’s some sort of vaccine or we get ahead of this and then life will go back to normal. Now, it’s just not that time.

I think a lot of the reasons that people struggle with it is because it’s unprecedented. There’s no roadmap. There’s no blueprint. There’s no atlas. There’s nothing for us to go on to be like, ‘Okay, well, you know, it’s a bummer, but you’re gonna have to be in your house for 15 months, and we’re gonna have to do everything online.’

We can think about it the reverse. We could be doing this without the internet. We’re fortunate that most people can still do most of their daily activities. Like a lot of people can work from home. A lot of people can communicate. If this was 1980, I have no idea what would happen. You couldn’t even tell people to stay home because you couldn’t communicate with them…

SM: We’d all have to get really creative with pagers.

JT: Laughs. Yeah, we got to look on the bright side—that we have all this at our disposal. So, right now is the time to try something different. But if I can be out someplace playing a real show that is 100% what I would prefer to do, but only in safety. We’ll wait it out. I think that that’s the right move for everybody. I hope it’s sooner than later, because I know a lot of people are struggling and this has just as much physical and mental toll as it has financial…

We all think differently. Some people tend to think on the doom and gloom side, and some tend to think on the rosy, sunny side. But information is the most important thing for all of us—to let us know what’s happening, how you’re working for us, and how we can all stay together. So that’s part of why we’re trying to play shows and talk to our fans. And one of the most important parts, when we were getting this together, was to make sure that there was a chat room function during the shows. So that way, all of these people that come from the same area—and they could be total strangers, or they could be friends that usually go to shows together—could be able to communicate and talk about the show that was happening while they’re watching it.

SM: You mentioned that you’re going to be doing two shows a day across the U.S. rather than just one stream to everyone at once. With you guys shooting all these shows from the same spot, in addition to the chat, how are you going to keep these performances fresh stream to stream?

JT: Well, we’ve got a lot of surprises… We’re definitely switching the setlists up. That’s one easy thing to do. So, we’re having to prepare a lot more songs then we’d normally prepare. But we are also going to be working on narrative and dialogue that has to do with what we would do in that city. So, we are going to pretend like we’re there and say what we would have done that day. Where we would have eaten, things like that. It’s just little things. It seems kind of silly, but this is the Internet. This is pretend. So, this is the perfect time to be able to do things like this… And obviously we’ll be working with wardrobe, and what you see behind us, and things like that to give a nod to certain areas and regions.

We’re going to try our best to do everything that we can to give a fun show for everybody that’s watching because the easiest thing to do would be to do one live broadcast where what you see is what you get. But we didn’t really want to do it like that because we wanted it to benefit more people. Like we’re using a video studio in the town that we’re from called Troy, Ohio, and we rented it from them twice a day. So, we’re employing five people every day that we wouldn’t employ. So, we’re able to inject some sort of finance into our local community, as well as the internet community, and the localized markets that we’re virtually performing in…

It’s a big undertaking, and there’s a lot of hopes and dreams involved, which is why in our artwork there’s a giant rainbow and 1985 Apple Computer, because that’s like the beginning of the dream—you see everything around you and everything is blue skies and rainbows and fantasy-like. That’s what we’re trying to promote. We’re trying to promote the dream, basically, but we’ll see how it goes.

SM: And the tickets are relatively inexpensive, but you’re also offering VIP tickets that include playing emo trivia. That sounds pretty fun. What’s that going to be like?

JT: The company that we’re using is called Future Beat and they have this technology that can tie us into the fan’s mobile device for like a minute and a half. So, it’s like ‘Okay, we got 90 seconds with you. We’re going to ask you one question. If you get it right, your name goes on the list, and then we’re gonna do a special grand prize drawing after every show… And all the people who get it wrong, they just get it wrong.’ Laughs. So that’s our brief interaction, but we have a huge list of questions regarding the time period, genre, and everything, and that was fun to come up with. And every city gets its own question.

SM: What other VIP stuff do you have planned?

JT: We’re in the coffee roasting game these days, which is another thing we got to do from quarantine. We share a space in a warehouse with a coffee roaster and kind of partnered up. So, we’re creating a custom blend for all of our VIPs, which is cool…

Then the most fun one is this upgrade to an upgrade called Faces in the Crowd. If you watch the NBA and MLB, they have these cut-outs of the fans in the stands and stadiums, and we’re doing that. So, you can upgrade to have yourself in the show. We will print out the picture and put it on some form of a body… We have a lot of fans that are buying them for their friends or boyfriend or girlfriend as surprise presents. And their friend will be watching the show and then see themselves. It’s gonna be hilarious.

SM: The coffee sounds interesting. Is it going to taste dark and sad? What’s the flavor going to be like?

JT: Our first blend, which was called Burkhart, had to do with us growing up in 2003 in the summer when we were playing a rental hall on Burkhart Road in Dayton, Ohio. And it was about everything that we used to do in that time period. And that’s where the flavor nets came from.

So, this special VIP one is actually about a place… We’ve had a couple band retreats in Palm Springs, California, and it’s about our adventures there. A lot of it has to do with old Hollywood and all the secret little clubs that people go to in Palm Springs. Way, way long ago, like in the fifties and sixties. So, it has a lot of old society flavors. It tastes almost like an old fashioned—like orange and bourbon. It’s aged in a bourbon barrel. So, it’s gonna be cool. It’s called Amado, which is a road and a little area in Palm Springs.

We’re gonna start our process, which is called cupping, on Monday, which is interesting. That’ll be our first taste of it, and then we’ll adjust things from there, and then we’ll be ready to go. So that will only be available to the VIPs and then we’ll release a different version of it later on in the year.

SM: And Mark Rose of Spitalfield, he’s going to be opening for you?

JT: Yes, he is. We like to take him everywhere we possibly can because he’s a good musician, a great friend, and just a good hang. We wanted the ‘quote-unquote’ opener of the show to be a good vibe. And he is always our good vibe. Sometimes he works for us. Sometimes he plays on the stage with us. He’s just a great guy so we’re always looking to showcase him in some form.

He will be playing from Chicago and we’ll be playing from Troy, Ohio, so we won’t actually get to see him. We will just be watching him as fans and maybe we’ll get to communicate a little bit with him using the chat and stuff like that. It’s gonna be a blast.

SM: So, you teased us with a few new tracks on the compilation album Lost Frequencies last year, but you haven’t dropped a studio full length since 2018. Have you been using quarantine to come up with new music?

JT: Yep, we are locked and loaded and have a wonderful array of new music. Right now, it’s just tricky on when is the most responsible time to release it because we’re at a level where you can really lose momentum and a lot of your financial freedom by releasing something at the wrong time. So, we’re dealing with our manager and agent and record label so we can all create some sort of perfect harmony within a pandemic. But don’t worry. We are working, we are hustling, and music is always the most important thing with us. We definitely have songs, and we are definitely trying to not let the darkness creep in. But when it does, it gets as dark as it should, because we’re in strange times.

SM: Yes, even in your promo video for the tour you talk about how positive you guys are staying, even though emo tends to lean toward the darker side, especially lyrically. I think it’s really great that you guys are trying to bring some positivity to such a rough time.

JT: Yeah, we are. We are all going to find a way to make it through. That’s the most important thing. Humans and our country have gone through a lot in general over the past 200 years. I think that if we learn from our mistakes, and we try to stay as safe as we can, and try to use medicine and science and leave the arrogance to the professionals, then I think that maybe we’ll be okay. But, you know, I just play guitar, so I’m just hoping and dreaming as much as everybody else. But I think that civility is key. I think that we should all be looking to honor one another and help one another instead of trying to doom and gloom each other into a deep, dark place.

SM: For sure. So, anything else planned for you and Hawthorne Heights?

JT: Well, I think we’re trying to keep everything on level 10 yet be easy and cautious about it at the same time. We’re gonna get through this virtual tour, and then we will be on to whatever our next big project is. So, you have to stay tuned. We got a lot of plans. Some of them will pan out. Some of them will not. We’re trying not to be too wild, but we’re excited for it. You know, there is a future for all of us. That’s what people have to realize. There’s a future and a purpose for all of us.

The ‘Stay Home: An Unbiased View of Touring in the Year 2020’ with Hawthorne Heights and Mark Rose of Spitalfield to support Backstage Bar and Billiards will be Friday, October 30, 2020, at 8:00 p.m. (rescheduled time.) Tickets on sale at smashmagazine.com.  

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