SEATTLE — There’s no beer in the dressing room.
No bottled water either. No snacks. Hell, until a few minutes earlier the Head and the Heart was locked out, pacing the narrow fourth-floor corridor of the Paramount Theatre until a stagehand, keys swinging from a metal chain, shows up to let them in.
Still, it’s the Paramount, Seattle’s grandest venue. A year ago, the Head and the Heart was playing to a dozen drinkers at Sunday open-mic nights. Twenty minutes from now, on this late-September night, the local folk-pop sextet will play the biggest stage of its career in front of who knows how many people — 100? 1,000? — opening for hugely popular indie rock band Vampire Weekend.
Industry insiders describe a “feeding frenzy” around the Head and the Heart — bigshot managers and major record labels from New York and L.A. all want a piece and they want it now. The band is in the midst of a make-or-break moment, one that’s happened a thousand times before for other bands and will happen a thousand times again, but for these six 20-somethings means the difference between the could-be of this empty dressing room and the definitely-is of Vampire Weekend, one floor below.
“Ten minutes to stage time for the Head and the Heart ...” A disembodied voice pipes into the dressing room, gentle but serious.
Amid preshow rituals that include vocal exercises, push-ups and nervous pacing is the palpable sense that tonight is auspicious, downplayed by professional realism, outweighed by permanent enthusiasm.
“It’s just a show. Let’s own it!” This from Tyler Williams, drummer. He goes down for push-ups.
“I need to warm up my falsetto.” Josiah Johnson, singer, guitarist. He’s doing jumping jacks.
“I need a beer!” Chris Zasche, bassist, lying on the makeup table.
“Five minutes til stage time for the Head and the Heart ...”
The band bursts from the dressing room, clomps noisily down the Paramount’s concrete stairwell and spills out backstage. Between curtains the crowd is visible, maybe 150 early arrivers pressed close to the stage. A gray-goateed prop man approaches the band and tells them, based on their soundcheck, he thinks they’re great. Openers at the Paramount often come back as headliners, he says.
“You guys ready?” the stage manager asks. “I’m gonna call house lights.”
The lights go down, a cheer goes up, and the Head and the Heart takes the stage.
Earlier in the day, the Head and the Heart — THATH for short — is at the four-bedroom house they share with members of the Maldives, a local country-rock band. Johnson and singer/guitarist Jon Russell are absent, hustling to get Russell a passport so he can travel to a Vancouver gig this weekend. Zasche is sweating over T-shirt designs; the band has no merchandise to sell at the Paramount tonight, and he’s hoping to screen print a few dozen shirts this afternoon before the gig. It’s a potential goldmine they end up letting slip.
“This is why we need a manager,” Williams says.
The frenzy settles when Johnson and Russell arrive, passport arranged, and the band descends to the basement to practice. Now they’re utterly professional, if a bit familial. They nitpick mercilessly over tiny details — a tambourine hit, a sustained chord, a blip of vocal harmony.
They practice for over an hour despite having played five shows in five nights in Washington, Idaho and Utah just last week. Their dedication is clear: Practice four days a week, in the morning, like a job. Which it basically is — Russell and Williams recently lost their server gigs when they asked for more time off to tour. Zasche won’t bartend at all this month. Keyboardist Kenny Hensley’s only income is baby-sitting for their booking agent. For now, each bandmember lives on a $10 per diem, money collected from touring and saved by sleeping on floors.
A week prior, the Head and the Heart is in Portland to play concert venue Berbati’s Pan as part of MusicFest Northwest. At a 6 p.m. soundcheck, they’re dressed in matching track jackets, each embroidered with a tongue-in-cheek nickname (“Hot Rod Hensley,” “Nice Guy” for Johnson, “Mega Babe” for singer/violinist Charity Thielen.) These are gifts from MusicFest sponsor Nike, arranged by Jason Colton, a Portlander here at the show who manages the Decemberists and Phish and is looking to work with THATH.
Also present is Ali Hedrick, a Seattle booking agent who books shows for indie darlings Sufjan Stevens and the New Pornographers. THATH is her most recent client; getting out on the road is top priority, so she’s the first business decision they made. It has already paid off: Billions, the agency she works for, books Vampire Weekend — hence next week’s opening slot.
Ninety minutes later the band is playing to a growing crowd. The music is passionate, earnest, infectious — spiritually descended from Fleet Foxes, the Avett Brothers and Electric Light Orchestra. Each song seems to be about going home or leaving home, traveling and yearning, friends and family. The six musicians are in constant motion, singing at top volume, violent on their instruments. The crowd is singing along, sucked in.
The last song of the 45-minute set — of every set so far, as ordained by the group — is “Rivers and Roads,” a smoldering ballad bursting with three-part harmonies, group whoa-ohs and Johnson’s poignant vocal:
“Been talkin’ ‘bout the way things change/My family lives in a different state/If you don’t know what to make of this/then we will not relate.”
The chorus comes from Thielen, her tremulous voice captivating:
“Rivers and roads/Oh, rivers and roads/Rivers ‘til I reach you!”
The song ends with an all-inclusive foot-stomping, hand-clapping a cappella crescendo; Hensley nearly knocks over his keyboard leaping to his feet to join in. The applause is huge.
After the set, Russell and Johnson cab across the city to catch the Smashing Pumpkins. Zasche leaves with his girlfriend who’s visiting from Kansas. Colton waits outside to take Thielen, Hensley and Williams to see Portland band Menomena at the Crystal Ballroom; they’ll skip the huge line out front thanks to Colton’s connections.
The show lets out around midnight. Colton, Williams and Ed Pierson, one of the band’s two lawyers, stroll downtown Portland discussing record labels. Warner Bros. has expressed interest; Sub Pop and Barsuk have remained aloof. The choice will affect finances, exposure and artistic credibility. Despite trepidation over the major players, Williams is confident the band will make the right decision.
Back at the Paramount, the band plays an abridged opening set to a crowd that, like Berbati’s, grows with each song. There’s singing along, family in the audience, young girls yelling, “You’re so hot!”
“Who’s excited to see Vampire Weekend?” Thielen asks the crowd between songs. Cheers.
“Who’s excited to see the Head and the Heart?” someone in the crowd yells back. Bigger cheers.
They end with “Rivers and Roads,” singing full-bore to the empty upper decks, stomping and clapping with tent-revival conviction.
More industry types backstage, including a New York-based A&R guy from Universal Republic and Death Cab for Cutie manager Jordan Kurland, up from San Francisco, who’s competing with Colton to manage THATH.
The band sticks around for Vampire Weekend’s set. Around 11 p.m., they leave through the back door and climb in the van.
“What the hell just happened?” Johnson asks from behind the wheel.
He’s incredulous: A throng of kids was waiting outside the Paramount’s back door — waiting for the Head and the Heart, not Vampire Weekend.
“They wanted us to sign CDs and stuff. They were there for us. What the hell just happened?” he repeats.
The rest of the band is giddy, talkative, stunned. After playing their biggest gig yet, the Head and the Heart heads to an unlicensed venue for a friend’s intimate late-night birthday party. They’re playing for her tonight, too.
Josiah Johnson, 26, started playing the Sunday open mic at Seattle’s Conor Byrne Pub two years ago, when he first moved from Orange County to Seattle for grad school. That’s where he met Jon Russell, 25, a Virginian who came to Seattle around the same time, lured by an offer of three months of rent-free living. The two immediately bonded over each other’s songs. The open mic scene drew Los Angeleno Kenny Hensley, 22, who had moved to Seattle to focus on piano composition and impressed Johnson and Russell with a “12-minute piano opus,” as Johnson describes it. Hensley had never been in a band, but he, Russell, and Johnson began writing songs together; minor masterpiece “Down in the Valley” was spawned in a few hours during a session in the Seattle Central Library’s piano room. Seattle native Charity Thielen, 24, returned from a year living in France and fell in with the trio during an impromptu jam outside Conor Byrne. Russell convinced high school friend Tyler Williams, 24, to move from Virginia to play drums. Chris Zasche, 28, a Seattle native who plays steel guitar in the Maldives, was tending bar at Conor Byrne, watching the whole thing develop. He’d never played bass before but saw a niche that needed filling. He joined in February. The Head and the Heart is an egalitarian operation — all six are credited as songwriters.
BUZZ FOR THE BAND
Perry Watts-Russell is a 30-year music industry veteran who managed Berlin (“Take My Breath Away”) and signed Radiohead and Coldplay to their American label deals with Capitol Records. Today he’s A&R at Warner Bros., responsible for bringing new acts to the label. He first heard THATH three months ago — Hensley’s father has a college friend in WB’s international department — and was instantly smitten. Yes, he hopes to sign them, but foremost, he says, he’s a fan.
“You have to pretend that you haven’t gotten signed. If you sign and think you’re home free and the record company is going to make you a star, you’re almost certainly going to fail. It’s about you. It’s so easy to lose sight of that. In their case, if indeed they’re able to go through this process and emerge from it intact emotionally, psychologically and with the right approach to their career, then that will be attributed to something in them, not just the fact that they’ve educated themselves and they’re bright kids. It’s some part of being grounded, of who they are. The reason we sense they’re able to do that is because of the music. The music may be about displacement and dealing with separation, things you might not be experienced in, but music tells you everything. It still feels like it’s coming from the right place.
“Young people making music for the right reasons, no real separation between the people listening to the music and the people making it. If everyone can experience that, then it feels real, something one wants as a part of their life. As long as they have people around them, family, friends, that can keep them grounded, they’re gonna be great. They’re gonna do fine.”