As someone who went to college and fell in love in rural Ohio (no, her name was not Niki…) in the mid aughts, the beautiful emo sentimentality that Dayton, Ohio’s Hawthorne Heights have honed and mastered will always hold a special place in my heart. Sure, those first two records perfected what we called “emo/screamo” in the LiveJournal/Myspace days, but those who tuned out the band over the years missed out on some of the most underappreciated gems in the scene’s history— I’ll take to my grave that Skeletons is one of the best pure heavy punk records ever, but thankfully the gracefully aging legends had not peaked yet.
That’s because their upcoming magnum opus, The Rain Just Follows Me, out September 10 via Pure Noise, feels like a warm cozy weighted blanket of metallic emotion holding you tightly. Few bands have gone through Hell and back quite like Hawthorne Heights— label disasters, the death of a scene icon in guitarist and vocalist Casey Calvert, and living in Dayton (I kid, Dayton’s great). They never stopped touring and pumping out music, but with a much-needed rest period and their best batch of songs ever, Hawthorne Heights are like sunshine after a torrential rainstorm. Vocalist and guitarist JT Woodruff laughs about the state of the band and waiting to release this gem:
“There’s a fair amount of— what the hell are we still doing here? The crazy part to me is that this album was written before the pandemic. Because I put on a show not only in my mind, but also in my professional mind as well, and I’m like, ‘I know that we’re going to have to sit on this,’ and the last thing that I actually have to worry about now is this record. So, I didn’t listen to it for a long time after we finally got the mixes and everything done. Because I didn’t want to sit there and agonize over it, you know what I mean? I wanted to be like just something that was ready when it was ready.”
“Then you go to the pandemic six months in,” he continues. “And I was enjoying what being on a break for a band is like, because we never have had that break. We’ve been going for 17 years straight. It was the first time that I really didn’t have to worry about what tour is coming up, it was more like, ‘I’m worried if tour will ever happen again.’ It gave me more appreciation for what we did and what accomplished. And I’m glad that we exhausted ourselves [creating this album], because the biggest thing about it is just mental, and physical, and spiritual exhaustion. And it’s the culmination of 17 years of exhaustion, and it took a pandemic to take a breath. That is really is sad [laughs]. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in our careers, but we needed this. The whole world had to stop in order for us to stop.”
He’s not wrong about this feeling like a pandemic record. The lead single is called “Constant Dread” for God’s sake, but it’s that raw emotion that is why so many have a great connection to the band after all these years. He’s also downplaying how perfectly this captures everything the band have excelled at over the years and elevates it to new heights. The best hooks, riffs, breakdowns, and lyrics are all on glorious display. Woodruff explains where he was during this record:
“There’s a lot of themes on there that you could take as pandemic and post-apocalyptic, and you’re reaching in the dark depths of what society might have come to, but all of that stuff is really just about us, and about our band, and our career, and the dark roads that we’ve had to take sometimes. This is by far the most personal I’ve ever been when it comes to recording my thoughts. When I write songs lyrically, there’s always going to be some [distance]. Like most of me in that to a degree, but I tend to fabricate. If I’m going through something, I tend push it way further in the song than it is, because it gave me the idea of a story of what happened, but this [record] is a lot of putting the cards on the table and not playing it so close to the chest, you know what I mean? It’s the result of being totally wiped out.”
Like many others, Woodruff was able to re-assess and re-prioritize what matters most to him.
“I really took a look in the mirror and understood that every decision that I made had a byproduct to it. You just got used to this wild ride of a loop. And you don’t realize that when you’re on the rollercoaster, other people are on it with you. You might be in the free fall moment, or they might be in the free fall moment, so it’s it showed me how it [affected my family]. They are the most important thing to me, but a lot of times it can seem like it’s not because I’m gone, because the nature of the job is to be on tour. I just realized that I should not be away from home as much as this. My favorite part of my life is my wife and my kid, which happens to be the two people that I see less.”
Part of this introspection comes natural to Woodruff, someone who was thrust from relative obscurity to one of the leaders of the emo scene with one famous song about a girl from Ohio.
“It feels like every band is supposed to have this extreme frontman” Woodruff says. “I’m just the kid front Saint Marys, West Virginia who wrote this song about Ohio, you know what I mean? So, it’s like for better or for worse, what you’re going to get is always honesty from me. And sometimes it’s uncomfortable, and sometimes it’s comforting. That’s the reason that I do it, it’s because I do want to show people that it is okay to experience misery sometimes, because we all do.”
“I’ve always felt fortunate to be a musician,” he notes. “I grew up very humbly. A little, tiny town. I grew up in a trailer, a child of divorce, and there was plenty of love. We didn’t care about material things or money or anything like that because we didn’t have any. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that I care about every single thing that I have. It’s wild to wake up one day and you’re still here doing that thing, even though sometimes that thing is negative. It’s a long, strange trip, the Grateful Dead said it right, you know what I mean?”
Part of this nearly two-decade-long rollercoaster ride is figuring out what parts of it bring you the most joy. For Hawthorne Heights, it’s not the ups, the downs, or the steady. It’s everything together:
“I’ll tell you one of the great conversations we had was, let’s stop trying to write the perfect song, let’s start trying to write the best Hawthorne Heights’ song we can. Because that is our job. Our job is not to create some sort of like pop masterpiece, because we’re a screamo band, or emo band, or whatever you want to call us. So, I think that we were separating things too much. And once started talking about that, the best thing that we were doing when the nervous energy was happening on our first album was having Casey interject screams and throw in great heavy riffs.”
“That’s how you got our sound that was like a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Woodruff continues. “Whereas, when you learned more about songwriting, you think about it too much, and it’s like, ‘No, man we don’t need the scream in this one, because this is like a killer pop punk song.’ What we did was take the Hawthorne Heights out of it. You’re trying to creatively craft a great song but you’re not realizing what makes it great— your tendencies.”
As a band known for delving into personal darkness, there’s sunlight at the end of the long rainstorm, and it seems like Woodruff and company have finally found their musical and personal happy place.
“We’re in great spirits when it comes to that stuff now,” Woodruff says. “Our ship is going in the right direction. The arrow is pointing north, and we’re going to just try to do the thing that we couldn’t do in our music, which is create the proper balance. Create the proper balance in our life. Create the proper balance in our music, and everything will be all smiles. So, maybe you are going to get a pop record next time with, but probably not, because I’ll find a way to ruin it. I’ll find a way to get sad [laughs].”
Check out the title track, “The Rain Just Follows Me,” here:
For more from Hawthorne Heights, find them on their official website.
Photo courtesy of Hawthorne Heights and Courtney Kiara.