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The Head and The Heart: The Hardest Working Band In Indie Rock?

22 March 2011

It’s been a heck of a year for Seattle’s The Head and the Heart. This sextet’s formal birthing was barely a year ago, but in that time much has happened. The band self-released their self-titled debut, only to have it sell out quickly and be a local bestseller. This interest brought them to the attention of Sub Pop, who quickly signed the band, and reissued, remastered, and expanded the album, reissuing it digitally in January, with a physical reissue set for April. It’s not surprising, though, that the venerable label would take an interest; The Head and The Heart‘s gentle, lush countrified pop arrangements fits in nicely besides records of label mates Vetiver, The Fruit Bats, Iron & Wine, Damien Jurado, and the various projects of Joe Pernice.

To singer-songwriter Josiah Johnson, this rapid development has kept them busy, including an exhausting live schedule. “Ever since November, we knew we’d be on the road for the next six months or so. Prior to signing with Sub Pop we had lots of opportunities lined up for us, but Sub Pop’s taking it to a whole other level. Just these past couple of months, we went to Europe, played some shows with The Walkmen, played the East coast with Dr. Dog. We’re headed to Texas, then we’ll be going to Europe for a few weeks after South by Southwest; when we get back, we’re going to do some touring and festivals over the summer, and then a headlining tour in the fall.”

For a band with such a quick gestation period, the growth of the band stems from a rather relaxed approach, with no set goal in mind. “I met Jon Russell, the other songwriter, and our piano player Kenny Hensley about six months before the band formed as a whole, and we just wrote songs, because that was what was fun for us. We didn’t necessarily have a process behind it—we didn’t really know what we’d do with them. Then when the band got together, we didn’t have to sit down and say, ‘Well, we need to write a record,’ because we had already gone through that.”

This relaxed approach made the recording of The Head and the Heart a mere formality. “Instead of having to write songs, we just had to build on them and expand on the arrangements, and when we went into the studio, it didn’t feel like we were going through making our first record. It felt like we were just recording a few songs for the heck of it, so that we’d have some songs to give to people whenever we’d want to book some shows. In a way, The Head and the Heart, to us, our mentality of it is that it’s almost a demo. Then, as we started recording, it seemed like we all decided to be perfectionist, so instead of the regular time we’d expected it would take us to record it, we wound up taking three times as long, and it became an actual record, instead of a demo. We didn’t go into the studio thinking, ‘We’re going to make a big album;’ we just wanted to make some songs.”

Of course, having spent so much time on the road has hindered the band’s ability to work on new material—a problem most new bands don’t have. “It’s hard to write as a full band. All six of us collaborate in terms of structure and instrumentation. It’s a democracy how the songs end up finished, but Jon and I have definitely been writing parts of songs together on the road—but it’s a difficult thing for sure. There’s a lot of life going on outside the van right now, and we are just figuring out how to live on the road. but we’ve been working on things in the van. It’s kind of a crazy mess right now, but you’ve got to carve out some time for yourself, so you can stay sane. We try to do writing, but it’s tough because we’re so busy.”

But Johnson is looking forward to taking a breather. “By the time we sit down together as a full band and start putting together songs, we’ll have to clear our heads first. Being a live band right now, we’re concentrating on these certain set of songs, so that we can get them right, night after night. When we get off the road we want to take some time off to just write, so that our songs don’t sound just like what we’ve already done. We want to figure out how we want our songs to sound, and what stylistic direction we want to go.”

In listening to him talk, asides from sounding a little bit weary from touring, Johnson’s voice hinted at a wonderment at the suddenness of it all. “To have people want to come see you play and to show up around the country within a year of being a band is a little nuts. Knowing plenty of other friends’ bands who have been touring for years, and not getting to the point we have as quickly, it’s amazing to us. We’re lucky, but it’s still somewhat overwhelming.”