To outsiders, the official Head and the Heart story goes something like this: shiny folk-pop band forms in Seattle, becomes an out-of-the-blocks grassroots sensation, sells shitloads of self-released CDs, and, almost overnight, starts packing thousand-seat-plus rooms across the continent.
The way that drummer Tyler Williams tells things, though, that’s not totally the case. Yes, the Head and the Heart did record its eponymous debut album a mere month after solidifying its lineup. And yes, it wasn’t long before the band’s first gig—in an 80-seat Emerald City space—gave way to high-profile support slots for acts like Vampire Weekend and Dave Matthews. Other highlights of what’s been a generally charmed and rapid ascension include a deal with iconic Seattle record label Sub Pop, an appearance on Late Show With David Letterman, and salivating press in tastemaking outlets that range from the Onion’s The A.V. Club to America’s National Public Radio.
And things only look to be picking up as 2011 winds down. On the day the Straight calls, Williams is in Los Angeles with the Head and the Heart, delighted to report that the group is in the middle of a special recording session for iTunes. The drummer is quick to note, however, that his band’s rise to indie-nation prominence hasn’t been bump-free. Williams was living in Virginia when he packed up the van and moved to the Pacific Northwest, his cross-country 2009 relocation occurring after being offered a spot in the Head and the Heart by cofounding singer-guitarist Jonathan Russell. When he pulled into Seattle—a city he’d never visited before—it didn’t take long for him to realize he wasn’t exactly joining the city’s number one buzz act.
“I don’t know what I was thinking when I first moved out here,” Williams says, on the line from La La Land, “but I think maybe it was that the band was a little further along than it was. We had a show the weekend that I moved out, and I hadn’t heard any of the songs, or met any of the people other than Jon. I guess when I got to Seattle, I was kind of taken aback by how amateur it was—it wasn’t what I was used to at all. I thought I had cherry-picked myself into a really nice position.”
Evidently the kind of dude who doesn’t sit back and wait for others to whip things into shape, Williams decided that his new bandmates needed some seriously tough love.
“It was basically boot camp for a month,” he says with a laugh. “Like ‘We need a practice space, this is what we have to do, and this is how we have to do it.’ It was really a lot of kicking people’s asses to get this thing in gear. But luckily people were willing to go along with that. I think there was a lot of hatred towards me from the other people in the band for the first couple of months, but once they started seeing that pay off, it was all fine.”
Pay off it certainly did. After bassist Chris Zasche came on board to solidify the Head and the Heart’s lineup in 2010, the band’s quickly recorded debut would go on to move 10,000 units, most of them sold at gigs and indie record stores in Seattle. That led to a flurry of record label interest, with Sub Pop signing the band and then reissuing The Head and the Heart earlier this year, helping the group build a coast-to-coast name. When the Head and the Heart finally hit the road, it pulled into cities for the first time to enjoy sold-out shows, as opposed to the usual grind of playing bars with four people in them, one of them being the bartender.
“With things like this iTunes session, it’s all starting to seem totally crazy,” Williams admits. “Originally, we thought ‘We’ll put out this album, maybe get a little attention, and then maybe do an EP to try and keep some momentum going.’ That’s what bands normally do. All of what’s happened with this record is beyond our expectations. It’s not normal for this to happen, and we know that, so we are very appreciative of everything. This is all kind of a dream come true I guess, even though it’s definitely hard work.”
Funny, then, that the Head and the Heart make it all seem effortless on record. If you’re smitten with the likes of Mumford and Sons, Fleet Foxes, and local boy done good Dan Mangan, you’ll find plenty to love on The Head and the Heart, a record marked by honey-soaked harmonies and gold-barbed melodies. “Coeur d’Alene” makes a golden backdrop for crisp fall days, “Down in the Valley” burnishes its singer-songwriter–tinted country with mournful violin, and “Winter Song” is gorgeous enough to make you think it’s time to book that 100 Mile House cabin for the first snowfall of December.
As much as no one is complaining about the admirably organic-sounding The Head and the Heart, Williams can’t help but feel the album ended up being a bit rushed, this having everything to do with the band taking the express route from the practice space to the recording studio. Next time out, he promises that he and his bandmates—who also include singer-guitarist Josiah Johnson, violinist-singer Charity Rose Thielen, and pianist Kenny Hensley—will be looking to produce something grand.
“We’re going to want to take more time in the studio with our next record,” Williams says. “We toured Justin Vernon’s [of Bon Iver] studio when were travelling through Wisconsin. It’s a house on a ton of land where you can actually live—you can eat there, make your food there, have a bonfire, and then also record. That’s what we’re looking to do—have a place where you can live and breathe the album and create something that is of a certain time period. We want to really feel like we’ve captured a moment.”
If that moment ends up being anything near as epic as the Head and the Heart’s past 12 months, look out for something awe-inspiring.
The Head and the Heart plays a sold-out Commodore tonight (October 20) as part of the Straight Series.Follow Mike Usinger on the Tweeter at twitter.com/mikeusinger.