As far as mission statements go, Headwater’s “Fuel the Fire” is one that more bands would do well to adopt. A galloping affirmation of purpose, the fourth track on the Vancouver band’s new EP, Push, asks its listeners to buckle down and get to it, or else face a lifetime of unfulfilled dreams.
Easy advice to give, perhaps, but harder to adopt. Still, that’s the course that the members of Headwater have set for themselves: as they enter their 30s, mandolinist and guitarist Matt Bryant, guitarist and banjo picker Jonas Shandel, pedal-steel guru Tim Tweedale, and bassist Patrick Metzger have decided to make the changes they feel are necessary for success.
“When Jonas and I started this band, many years ago, we were in bands that nobody was listening to—and for good reason, because they weren’t very good,” Bryant explains, in a telephone interview from his home. So, he adds, Headwater’s chief songwriters set their sights on coming up with tunes “that would get people singing along and dancing along at shows”.
That’s been accomplished, so now it’s time to get them singing and dancing in bigger venues—which means a bigger sound, of which “Fuel the Fire” is but one example.
“There’s sort of a confidence to that tune,” Bryant rightly notes. “It’s about perseverance and putting your foot down and that sort of thing.”
None of the other songs address Headwater’s collective state of mind quite so overtly, but the way they sound sends the same message: this is a band that has consciously decided to stop being a charming little acoustic string ensemble and is going for commercial success. Bryant and company cite Tom Petty and Dan Lanois as possible templates for their new sound; comparisons could also be made to a tougher, younger Blue Rodeo.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that Headwater wants Push to be filed under “rock”.
“There’s a couple of reasons for that,” says Bryant. “One was that we were writing tunes that we felt needed that kind of treatment. They just felt more like rock tunes; that was the way they kept working the best. The sort of string-band, more folkie thing just wasn’t fitting the tunes that well, so we wanted to explore another idea, and we did, and we really liked the result. So we went with it.”
A side benefit is that Headwater should now be able to escape the “country” tag that is almost inevitably attached to any band that includes pedal steel guitar.
“We were too country for people that didn’t like country music, and not nearly country enough for people that did,” Bryant says, laughing. “That left us in a bit of a no man’s land, and we actively wanted to move on from there.”
But there’s more to Headwater’s new direction than hiring a drummer and masking Tweedale’s twang with various electronic devices. The band has always been relatively business-savvy, havingbooked its own European tours in the past, but it’s gearing up to get even more professional—thanks in part to some pro-bono assistance from the S. L. Feldman & Associates booking agency’s new digital-media-strategy specialist, Jess Sloss.
“He’s giving us tons of great advice,” says Bryant. “He’s been absolutely instrumental in helping us set up our new website and all of our online content. He’s very forward-thinking, and he’s got a good handle on social media and how people want to interact and purchase things online.”
Sloss, who’s also working with Mother Mother and other local acts, is at least partially responsible for Push being an EP rather than a full-length.
“His idea is to release limited-edition or short-run products with greater frequency, to keep people engaged with your site,” Bryant explains. “And also just to engage people and talk and have commentary and have interaction, socially. I’ve been really taking that to heart and working hard on the social-media front—and reaping the benefits of it, too, getting in touch with great writers and bloggers and musicians and fans. People it would be easy not to talk to, because you think you’re a band, and your job is playing and writing music. But Jeff’s idea is that, as a band, your main job is as an online salesperson.
“That’s your new job, right?” he adds. “I mean, your main business kind of job.”
Proponents of the art-for-art’s-sake approach might shudder, but tweeting your band’s praises has got to feel better than slinging burgers to pay for strings.
Headwater hosts a launch party for Push at the Biltmore Cabaret on Friday (May 4).