JT Woodruff of Hawthorne Heights
“It’s a fresh start, a new record company, new album, and a new perspective on life” is how one member of Hawthorne Heights recently described their career and the direction it’s headed. Certainly their past has been rocky but this band knows how to bounce back. On June 1st they will release their new album “Skeletons” – their debut on Wind-Up Records.
Feeling as if they’ve grown their sound with this album the songs cover everything you’d expect and a whole lot more from the country stylings of “Gravestones” to the 80s inspired “Nervous Breakdown” to the poptastic “Picket Fences” to the deeply personal tale of frontman JT Woodruff’s life experience of being abandoned by his alcoholic father in “Boy”.
After the passing of guitarist Casey Calvert in 2007 Hawthorne Heights was turned upside down, but this hardship and others have helped shape the band into who they are today, taking nothing for granted. They’re back to basics with a focus on core values and friends and family, even the album title “Skeletons” points to that simple approach of stripping down to the essentials.
Lyrically, this album has a lot to say, chock full of serious issues from the recession to suicide and musically you can feel the boundaries being explored in many different directions, perhaps the results of working with producer Howard Benson who has been known to push bands out of their comfort zone.
Recently we caught up with JT to talk about the new album, the writing process and what the future has in store for Hawthorne Heights.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette
The band has said that going to a new label (Wind-Up) and writing this new album felt a bit like a renewal for you overall – how do you feel that played out in the new music?
I think that it added a cool energy, there’s definitely a different vibe on it. There’s still Hawthorne Heights elements on it, we sound how we sound but there’s a lot more variety. We wrote a lot of songs and a lot of different types of songs to see what we would come up with, for better or for worse and then we chose the ones we really loved. We wrote more songs than we’ve ever written for one specific album this time around so we were able to throw a lot of stuff out and keep what we really treasured and that was a totally new experience. We didn’t have to hurry up and get in the studio, we could take the time and craft something we were really proud of.
Speaking of that, you wrote over 30 songs for this album – do you think fans will get a chance to hear some of the stuff that didn’t make the album?
We’re hoarders, for lack of a better term. We hold everything back, we don’t throw anything away so you’re going to hear some of it in some form or another down the road I’m sure. We feel that if we took the time to sit down and write it we had to have liked it at some point so there’s no reason we can’t rework it to make it into something we like now. We don’t write songs for any other reason other than we want to perform them live and share them with people so if we wrote them they will eventually get out there for better or for worse.
And you worked with producer Howard Benson on this one. You said that he was able to help you become better songwriters; can you tell us a bit about that and what you learned from them?
He was great with the vocals, when it was my turn to go in there and sing and try to capture something on tape he gave great direction. He would tell me if he wasn’t feeling something and push me to deliver more emotion and to try to make it more compelling. He wanted to believe it and understand where I was coming from when I wrote the lyrics and no one had ever taken that approach with me, usually they just asked me to go in and sing in tune, which doesn’t necessarily make it the best take. Sometimes the best take is that one where you’re a little out of tune, aggressive, and pushing for the stars so hard that there’s a bit of a flaw to it and I love that.
So this is your first album on Wind-Up, was it a very different experience for you than your previous label?
It’s been great, it’s been really fun. One thing that we wanted out of a new label was to stay on an independent, that way we knew nothing too crazy would happen – we’ve had friends who have had the worst luck and have such horror stories and we’ve had our own bad luck as well so we wanted to steer away from that. Upon talking to the Wind-Up people they had a passion for our music, they knew it and understood what we wanted to do and I think we were just happy about that.
A lot of the songs weave pretty intricate stories and are deeply personal. Starting right out with “Bring You Back” – can you tell us about that song and why it was important to start out with that?
The one thing that bands probably struggle with the most is the track listing for their album. There are four or five guys with different points of view, then you add the label’s point of view, management’s point of view, and you’re pushed and pulled in different directions until you finally settle on something. What do you start out with first? And my whole thought on this was that it’s pretty typical in the past that we’ve started out with a heavier song to grab your attention and get your ears ready to listen to rock but this time around I really wanted to pick the song that’s the most emotional heavy, the most in your face. The song at parts sounds a little happy and poppy but if you listen to the lyrics and truly listen to them you can understand that there’s a lot of torment going on there and a lot of pain and suffering. I just wanted to do something different and bring you back with a really important song. This song is about the first time I’d ever heard of somebody committing suicide, this was years ago, and it always stuck in my head. I wanted to include that particular emotion and that particular feeling that I had a decade ago. A lot of people hear it and they automatically think that it’s about Casey, our great friend and guitar player, and there is a little bit of him in there, just like there is in every song that we write from here on out but there’s a lot of other people that we’ve lost along the way as well and it comes from that emotion. When you lose somebody you would give up everything and do anything in the world just to have five more minutes with that person. We can’t do that but that’s our nature.
The album is called Skeletons, and the band has stated that with this album you took it down to the essentials and to the skeleton of who you are as a band and then sort of built it back up from there layer by layer…is that where the album title came from?
Like anything in life there’s always this negativity trying to strip everything away. For some reason, I don’t know if it’s like this everywhere else, but people in our country really like to see other people fail. They want nothing more than to watch a reality show of some train wreck and my first thought is I want to help that person, I want to help them make the right decisions, I don’t want to watch them fail and watch them fall. I want the light at the end of the tunnel, I want the hope. I think that’s what we need and that’s kind of what we mean by calling the album Skeletons. People are vultures, they will pick you to the bone, they will rip the flesh off of you and suck everything away until there’s nothing left and sometimes you feel like that. I think that everyone feels like that whether you’re in a band or at a job – sometimes you just feel powerless because people pick you apart for their own personal gain and enjoyment. Tearing you down makes them feel better about their lives and I just think we need to get away from that.
It seems like you guys really left your comfort zone with these songs trying out a lot of new styles while still keeping Hawthorne Heights elements throughout, was that something that was planned or did the writing process sort of just evolve into that?
I think it was a little bit of both. When we sat down to write the easiest thing for us to do was to write Hawthorne Heights sounding songs, we’ve been playing in a band for 7-8 years so we know our strengths and weaknesses. I think it was more that we were trying to turn our weaknesses into strengths and I think that you’re only as good as the next song you write, not the song you wrote before. It was just trying to become somebody that you’re not while being who you are. We wanted that challenge and to open up and go for it. We’re truly happy and there’s a ton of regular Hawthorne Heights sounding stuff on this album but there’s also our take on maybe a different style.
Can we dig into a few of my favorite songs? What can you tell me about “Picket Fences”?
I really like that song; I think that song lyrically is just kind of Americana. It’s the state that we’re in. I was sitting in Time Square in NYC plucking away at my guitar and just looking out and seeing the flashing lights. I was seeing all this stuff that I’m not use to seeing and just thinking of how everyone wants a taste of coming here but in reality back home there’s a local car plant closing and people can’t afford to put gas in their car, can’t afford their mortgages. It was just kind of like maybe you don’t need vacations, maybe we need to figure out the problem. We need to figure out where we’re going right now as a nation, and hopefully we will!
There’s a song on the album that’s quite personal to you called “Boy”, can you tell us about it and where that song came from?
“Boy” is probably the hardest song, as far as lyrically, that I’ve ever written. That song is about me growing up and my parents getting divorced when I was in sixth grade and just going through that situation. And that seems to be the way our society works these days, we’ll just get married because we know we can get divorced if we don’t like it and I think that’s extremely unfortunate. It’s just about growing up without a father and trying to become a man on my own without any guidance. It’s about how all I had was my mom and my sister to guide me through and it was really hard.
It’s really an emotional song and I think a lot of people will identify with that.
I hope they do, I think that a lot of people have had rough upbringings but it doesn’t mean it has to stunt you. It doesn’t have to really hurt you emotionally; you just have to know that a lot of people have been through it and keep on truckin’.
Speaking of “keep on truckin’, I think that as a whole there’s an important lesson to be learned from everything that you’ve been through as a band – was there ever a point where you guys wanted to just throw in the towel? What was it that made you persevere and in turn put out arguably the best album of your career?
I honestly think that it’s our friendship and the fact that we really all get along, even through the shittiest times that anyone could ever go through. Music and entertainment in general is a fleeting industry, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s all about taking shots in the dark and sometimes you find lightning in a bottle and other times it’s the calmest weather in the world, you just never know what’s going to happen. I think because we get along really well and we’re able to handle our problems internally that that’s really helped. If we were like some bands and were in it to just drink and hook up with girls we would have broken up a long time ago but we have our heads on straight and we’re small town dudes who write songs and just have fun doing it and that’s enough for us.
What do you want people to take away from this new album?
I hope that they can take my shitty times and just understand that everyone goes through bad situations but its how you come out of them that proves how strong you are and what kind of person you are. You have to slap away the vultures and keep on walking. You have to surround yourself with a great support system – friends and family. I hope people listen to this record and understand that sometimes life sucks but there’s always tomorrow. You can’t think in the past, you have to think of the simple things that make you happy.