Hawthorne Heights left their local confines of Dayton, Ohio and headed to Nashville to make their fifth album, Zero, with producer Brian Virtue. It's an ambitious concept piece framed around these times of income inequality and corporate disregard. In this talk with lead singer JT Woodruff, he explains how they put it together.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Tell me about the Zero album.
JT Woodruff: It's actually a concept album. Typically in the past, I'd write lyrics about what I'm feeling or maybe a story that I heard or a news article - anything to spark a little bit of inspiration in my head. I never use anything verbatim, but it kind of makes you think, "That's a horrible tragedy, how can I turn that into a positive" or something like that.
This specific album is about a group of kids whose town gets destroyed by a corporation from the area that everybody thinks is a good corporation, but it's actually just full of pollutants and kind of ruins the environment. It's about these kids taking back the town and starting everything over that they knew, because it's totally different now.
Songfacts: So why call it Zero?
JT: They're called The Zero Collective, so their symbol is a zero because it was easy to draw - it's a circle that goes around and everybody can fit in. And once you're in, you stay in.
Songfacts: Is there any particular store or corporation that inspired it?
JT: I wouldn't say there's anything in particular, but you just see things in the news and that helps you write sometimes. It doesn't seem like people are making decisions with the population's best interests. There are "public interest" groups that are really just after money instead of protecting the environment. There's a lot of stuff that you can read into, and whether you believe it or not is a different story.
Songfacts: In Southern California here, they wanted to open a Walmart, and a lot of people have problems with Walmart. Does that have anything at all to do with the concept?
JT: I wouldn't say that it's anything like Walmart. Shopping is not the big picture that we're looking at. This is more globally about the environment.
There's a little segment about how they prescribe medicine to make everybody feel calm, and I think a lot of that actually happens these days. Not maliciously, but I think there's a lot of over-diagnosis of things like ADD and ADHD and stuff like that. You're just given a pill, which will calm you down, but it leaves you totally flat. I think there's a way that we can all deal with problems that we don't need to do that. There's extreme cases for everything, but not everybody is made up the same way, so there's no way we can all take the same pill and get the same results. It's just not possible. So there's a little bit of that in there, too.
Songfacts: Do you have any favorite songs on the album?
JT: I really like "Spark." It's about the group of kids that are walking around the town that is now destroyed, but they're walking to places that they grew up hanging out at, whether it be the city square, the football field where they played in high school, stuff like that. Going back and bringing back all these memories. And that's what inspires them to figure out what is really going wrong here.
Songfacts: Are there any concept albums that are your particular favorites that you enjoy, that you were inspired by?
JT: All of us have always been big fans of Pink Floyd, The Wall. That is something that inspired us to think more outside the box, something that's not just a collection of songs. I would also say that ours is a little bit looser-based than that.
It stands alone, as well. You don't have to listen to everything all at once, whereas The Wall is so epic, it's such an impactful album start to finish, and it seems like they collectively thought of every little thing and put it all in there. We didn't try to go as deep and as far as that, but it's one of our favorite albums of all time.
Songfacts: Were there any musical changes for the album?
JT: I wouldn't say stylistically there's a lot of changes. It still sounds like Hawthorne Heights. But I would say that we had to think about things differently.
When I would write lyrics, we had to set a mood for the lyrics. So that might mean faster tempo or darker chords, which we'd never really thought about before. We just wrote the songs and we played what we liked. It was like, "Oh, this sounds great, I really like this part." But here it's like, "I like that part, I don't think it really fits the mood. It doesn't fit the element that we're looking for."
Songfacts: You almost have to think about it cinematically.
JT: I totally agree. And that is one of the things that we talked about while we were recording our record, was how can we get this to be cinematic? How can we get this to be like an opera? How can we get it to be like a play? How do the scenes open? How do they go from song to song? How do they change? What would this look like if Steven Spielberg directed it? Stuff like that.
Songfacts: I had a similar conversation with the guitarist for Black Dahlia Murder, only their inspirations are horror movies. They ask how the horror movie sound musically, so in a sense that's kind of what you're doing: how would we make this movie scene sound.
JT: Yeah. How would we score it? And I kind of explain that to the guys sometimes when we're in the studio. After the songs were written and everything, I'm like, Okay, the part is fine. But this is like a peasant uprising. How do we get that? How do we make it feel like that? How do the backup vocals sound like 1000 people in chains trying to break free?
So we spent a lot more time on that, not just on, "Oh, that harmony sounds really great," or "that sounds really crisp." It was like, "This doesn't sound like the town's destroyed enough. How do we make that? How do we create that tension?"
Songfacts: No so much about good or bad, it's about setting the scene.
JT: Yeah. "Good" is a frame of mind. What you think is good I can think is horrible, and vice versa. Is it right for what we're doing?
Songfacts: It's more objective.
JT: Exactly. And sometimes it creates a little bit of argument between us. It's like, I hear what you're saying, but listen to it in the context. A lot of times I had to explain what I'm feeling in the lyrics, and they're like, "Oh, I totally understand. I was not thinking about that whatsoever."
Songfacts: Do you collaborate as a band? It sounds like you come up with the context, but you don't go from start to finish and write it.
JT: No, not by myself. Actually, we've always had a really good time writing together, and that's one of my favorite parts of being in this band. You did hear a lot about singers who write everything and then people put their stamp on it. We're not like that. I do write a lot of parts, Micah [Carli] writes a lot of parts, Matt [Ridenour] writes a lot of parts. So we all collectively sit in a room together and we'll bring ideas. We'll be like, "Okay, well, this is what I have, how can we make this a song?" So I guess definitely Hawthorne Heights is a collaborative band as opposed to them trying to make my ideas better and fuller. It really is all of us sitting down.
July 8, 2014