Knitting Factory Presents
The Head and the Heart, Gregory Alan Isakov, Blind Pilot
It wasn't that long ago that the members of Seattle's The Head and the Heart were busking on street corners, strumming their acoustic guitars, stomping their feet and singing in harmony as they attempted to attract the attention of passersby. That unbridled energy informed their earliest original material, which was honed in local clubs before eventually being captured on the band's 2011 debut album for hometown label Sub Pop.
Then, something unexpected happened. That music began to reach audiences all over the United States and the rest of the world, and The Head and the Heart went from playing open mic nights to selling out headlining shows in prestigious venues. The album became one of Sub Pop's best-selling debut releases in years. And slowly but surely, ideas began to form for the band's second album, imbued with the experiences of traveling the world and cultivating a listenership with a deep connection to the music.
"There is a certain level of confidence gained from having such an amazing fan base," says group member Jonathan Russell. "You start to trust yourself more. When we were busking, we were filling so much space to keep the listener from walking away. Now we are in a very different situation." Adds group member Josiah Johnson, "We wanted to write songs that felt bigger, and didn't need to be so frantic. I think for the most part we wanted to record an album that sounds like the way we play now."
Indeed, The Head and the Heart's new release, Let's Be Still, is a snapshot of a band that didn't exist just four short years ago. Virginia native Russell and California transplant Johnson formed the core songwriting partnership, which was rounded out by drummer Tyler Williams, keyboardist Kenny Hensley, vocalist/violinist Charity Rose Thielen and bassist Chris Zasche, who'd met Russell and Johnson while tending bar at an open mic they frequented. The nascent group dove headfirst into writing, recording and performing, and even moved into the same house to ensure that inspiration could strike at any moment.
"The first record was very thematic. It just had to do with all of us being together and writing songs, and leaving home to come to Seattle," says Thielen. "I honestly don't know if there is a theme this time around. There are things that stick out, like the idea of going from busking to becoming a full-on band and touring like crazy." Adds Williams, "Before we started recording, I wondered, 'What if this doesn't work? What if the momentum dies down?' But once we got in there, we realized that we felt so good together doing it. The weight was lifted. It was like, 'Right! This is what we do.'"
Let's Be Still was recorded at Seattle's Studio Litho with assistance from prior production collaborator Shawn Simmons. Later, the band traversed the country to mix the album in Bridgeport, Conn., with Peter Katis, revered for his work with bands such as the National, Interpol and the Swell Season. The 13 tracks here build naturally on both the sounds and themes of the debut, from the piano and violin-dappled opener "Homecoming Heroes" and the heartfelt "Josh McBride" to vibrant, bouncy future concert staples "Shake" and "My Friends."
"The first record was written and recorded with a lot of limitations. It's almost easier that way," says Zasche. "This time around, with more time and resources, there were few limitations, so we had to be in charge of keeping a focus and not getting distracted but at the same time exploring the options available. It wasn't easy, but from this I think a clearer, more focused record has been made."
Band members point to "Another Story" as a moment that embodies their collective creative spirit. Russell wrote the song shortly after the elementary school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., but hadn't showed it to anyone in the band except Johnson. "One day everyone was taking a break from tracking and I was sitting in my booth and started to play this song," Russell recalls. "You could hear what I was doing in the control room and then one by one, a bandmate would walk in, grab their instrument and start playing along. We didn't talk about it. We didn't have to go back and rearrange anything. It was all there." Adds Williams, "Jon is so smart about waiting to introduce new ideas. He knows when the mood will be right." Says Johnson, "The song was undeniable, and the vibe didn't change from when he was playing it acoustically. Everybody just lifted it up, in the way that this band does."
On the opposite end of the spectrum was "Gone," which dated back to sessions for the debut album but didn't make the cut the first time around. The band wrestled with the arrangement while performing it live for several years, and finally cracked the code after adding a laid-back bass-and-drum groove to the beginning. Described by Thielen as "striking" in its solo acoustic form, Johnson's "Fire / Fear" underwent similar revisions until the rest of the band settled on a new progression to link the verses together. "There is a lot more patience in the music," says Russell. "I think that has a lot to do with feeling more comfortable as a songwriter and a performer."
During the mixing process, Katis was tasked with polishing what Johnson describes as "a beautiful mess" of finished tracks. Says Williams, "We have a certain energy when we play shows that didn't translate to the first record. I was getting worried about that before we went to Peter's. Things seemed a bit muted and dry to me. But I didn't realize how much mixing could change a record. Peter actually went in and messed with tones, had some production suggestions and wound up really being the right guy to help us finish the record." "His mixes turned the songs around, and breathed vibrancy into them," says Thielen. "He added some auxiliary details that helped make things more full-bodied, but still within the realm of what we do. It was really refreshing."
With Let's Be Still ready for release, The Head and the Heart is eager to return to the road to further hone the musical bond its members formed in such whirlwind fashion. "When I think about the two records together, the first one feels like we all wanted to fulfill this dream we'd had about playing music, meeting people and traveling around," says Williams. "This one feels like the consequences of doing that -- what relationships did you ruin? What other things did you miss? You always think it will all be perfect once you just do 'this.' And that's not always the case."
Adds Russell, "Has there been an impact on our lives since we have become full-time musicians? Sure. No band wants to write that second record about how hard they have it. But it's hard to get around all of it. There are a few songs on this record that express the band's hardships for sure. On one hand, it's everything you have ever wanted. On the other hand, you start to miss the things you've lost and had to give up. And that's just life. My job is to write about it."
The past isn't finished with us yet. Love can be like that, too. A couple of years ago I found love in different forms leaving my life at once. In a single month I lost my closest group of friends, my 13 year relationship ended, and my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I had just stopped touring to write the next Blind Pilot album, but instead I was watching each of my plans unthread as a new season pulled forward relentlessly.
Avoiding suffering, is avoiding real happiness too. My reason to tell this story isn’t because it broke me and pinned me breathless. There was suffering, but those two years, as I moved to my hometown to help my parents through my dad’s sickness and eventually his death, also brought me true closeness, a deeper will to care and hope, and many moments of beauty I can barely describe.
This album came from love for my family, my town, my friends, my community. We don’t have to be so afraid of loss. We can speak and share its name, knowing we are together in it. If these songs are invitations to talk about loss and death, the invitation is to talk closely of the courage we find when we face loss honestly, cracked open and unsure of what we will become.
-Blind Pilot’s Israel Nebeker
Blind Pilot’s ‘And Then Like Lions’ on ATO Records is the third LP from the Portland, Oregon-based sextet consisting of frontman Israel Nebeker, fellow founding member Ryan Dobrowski, Luke Ydstie, Kati Claborn, Ian Krist and Dave Jorgensen. The album was produced by Israel Nebeker and Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Neko Case, My Morning Jacket), and was written and composed by Nebeker. It comes five years after the band’s well-received ‘We Are the Tide’ and three years after Nebeker thought he’d be starting the songs that would become the band’s third album.
‘And Then Like Lions’ opens with “Umpqua Rushing,” the first single from the album and the track that most directly deals with the end of his relationship. It’s inspired by memories of visiting the Umpqua River with his then girlfriend. The song connects images of a forest fire to the destruction and new beginning found in love’s wake.
“Umpqua Rushing” has a strong, mid-tempo flow built on major chords and rich instrumentation that matches the river the song’s named for. Nebeker’s voice soars on strings to an uplifting ending, and it’s as vulnerable and open as he’s ever been.
Packed Powder is an upbeat, solidly-driven song filled with elevated textures of guitar hooks and trumpets. It comes from an idea Nebeker had as a teenager, when he and his friends found they could repack fireworks to different outcomes: “We’re all made of the same stuff, but who knows how we’re packed and what we’ll show as we burn across the black sky of our own time?” The song speaks lightheartedly of ironic outcomes when trying to better a life through different career paths, and then sings a chorus that surrenders and desires life to reveal what we are made of.
‘And Then Like Lions’ ends triumphantly on “Like Lions,” a song inspired by various stories of courage Nebeker has whitenessed in his recent years, including watching his father fight for life and, before the end, find strength enough to give himself and be at peace with his own mortality.
Blind Pilot has performed on Ellen and The Late Show with David Letterman, at the Newport Folk Festival, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza. The group has shared stages with The Shins, Local Natives, Andrew Bird, and more. The project began in 2007 when Israel and co-founding member Ryan Dobrowski went on a West Coast tour via bicycle. Blind Pilot's six members recorded for this new album and will tour through 2016.