Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
Once, twice, maybe a army of times in your life, you've learned that people are super easy to break up with. Sure, there's a brief, awkward period of time where it feels dirty wrong to have cruelly and, in all likelihood, unjustly trampled upon a living heart, but that passes like a caboose into the distance, the clanging of the guilt riding away down the cold rails. It's gone before you know it if you're the one doing the severing of ties. Proving that point expertly, some have even taken to breaking up through text messaging and e-mail. This greatly lessens the awkward stage, often nipping it completely in the bud. There's a pressing of send and immediately the burden has been lifted. Another call is made and suddenly drinks are on the house and the better part of two years is spiked gleefully through the heading resting on a pint of ale, making a hollow, yet pleasant splash, like a coin reaching the floor of a wishing well and making good on the flip instantaneously.
Bands, like people, but in groups, are easier to break up with. Those don't even get a courtesy call to tell them that their services will no longer be necessary. Some bands — that shall remain nameless — are dumped over a period of years. We start distancing when they release a green album, we give them obvious, frosty kisses when they pull something like Maladroit, and denounce them forever when a steaming pile of Make Believe comes from their hands. Yes indeed, bands are the easiest people to break up with. But try breaking up with a city. This proves to be almost impossible. You cannot send them break-up notes accusing them of changing (to quote Kevin Barnes, "Cause man, of course I have.") Cities, most of them, do not age well if you see them on a daily basis or even here or there. Even the cities that we think we're cutting ourselves loose from find ways to get back to us, to trigger a pang deep down in our stomaches that aches for what it used to give us when we were just learning about other places.
Eighty-percent of everyone, in every high school's graduating class, in every city in the world has a similar thought of getting out of that place and never coming back once they've flipped that tassel and returned their gown. It comes as naturally as heartbreak and sleep. The bustling town is too bright and too busy. The drowsy small town is too isolated and stagnant. People are found criss-crossing from one to the other, but before they know it, they return to what they grew up with more often then not — the "seeds" sown, and the memories of that shithole looking rosier all the time in retrospect. The struggle between home and somewhere else never really subsides and Champaign, Ill., three-piece Headlights treat this dichotomy as its wellspring of lyrical and emotional fodder. It approaches it as the lovelorn might, as the politely scorned might. They don't speak of their city with rancor on their tongues, but with a notion that they'll probably always be in love with each other, through the thick and the thin.
All three band members — singer/keyboardist Erin Fein, singer/guitarist Tristan Wraight and drummer Brett Sanderson — live in the same drafty, late-1800s-built farmhouse that's locked between two pieces of farm ground. For all but the summer season, they have a view out their windows that stretches and stretches. Champaign's an odd town to live in past the college years. ("It's primarily a college town which means it's very transient in nature. Once you're post-college, you see your friends start to move away. Any new friends you make are also bound to move away sooner or later. That's the toughest part about Champaign-Urbana for me. I think that at some point we'd all like to live in a place where there are more people our age who aren't just there to get a degree and move away," said Sanderson.) This germinates and feeds into Kill Them With Kindness, an album that registers on numerous levels, but is significantly adroit when it comes to capturing that feeling of hard love that we have for our homes sometimes. The mood is especially pregnable in the stunning "Owl Eyes," and the ruins of the crazy town that Fein sings about sound so familiar. They feel pained and yet so damned comfortable that you feel like that place is just beyond your window. It doesn't matter where you call home, be it cold, Illinois farmhouse or amongst the orange groves or the mountain foothills.
The Daytrotter interview:
Do you guys have nothing better to do than tour? Are there times when you don't see the continual grind of it working for you? What was the first show/tour, etc. where it felt like things were going to work out for this crazy rock and roll life you wanted?
Erin Fein: All we've ever wanted to do is tour. We're lucky that we're finally in a situation where it can be financially feasible for us to do so. Not that we're getting rich or anything! In other bands, we used to have to pay out of our own pockets to tour. Now we make enough scratch to come home and pay some bills. I'm not sure if there was ever a specific show or tour that made me think everything is going to be OK. I guess I'm still waiting for that to happen. We've a had a pretty slow and steady climb so far, and we hope that continues.
Brett Sanderson: Sometimes we get a little tired or overwhelmed with all the things that go along with being in a hard working band. It's times like these that I question Erin and Tristan's commitment to Sparkle Motion.
NOTE: Sparkle Motion is the name of the dance troupe that the daughters in the movie belong to. There's a scene in "Donnie Darko," where the crazy Mom lady goes to Donnie Darko's house and asks his Mom to chaperone the girls to the next competition. When Donnie's mom refuses, the psycho Mom says, "I'm beginning to question your commitment to Sparkle Motion."
If I remember correctly, Tristan and Erin, you two live on a farm, right? It's not operational or anything is it? What did it used to do? Are you a bit away from the busy streets?
EF: Calling it a farmhouse makes it sound a bit more romantic than it actually is. It is a big old green house between a soybean field and a corn field. It's falling apart and it's really cold in the winter time because the original 1898 insulation has probably dissolved and has never and will never be replaced. Plus the roof is being blown off by the wind. The landlord owns the bit of land that the house is on and someone else takes care of the fields. We do live a little ways out of town and we have no neighbors of course, so this is an ideal situation for practicing and recording at whatever hour we choose. All three of us live in it. Isn't that cute.
Someone recently told me that you have sold out your last four Chicago shows? Is this true? Is this startling to any of you? Do you sell out other places? There must be a large part inside all of you that thinks, "About time," after all the hard work.
EF: The last few shows we played in Chicago were sold out. It's a lot easier to do that when you're playing with bands like the French Kicks, The Living Blue, and Skeletons, though. Neither one of us ever expect a show to sell out. When it happens I don't think we ever say, "About time." We're more likely to say, "Fuck yes."
What did it take to get to where you are now?
EF: Work, work, work!!! Put the bong down and get shit done! There's no substitute for good ol' fashioned putting your nose to the grindstone. Whether it be touring or promoting or just doing all those little annoying things that aren't "fun." You have to work really hard! We have also been really lucky with the people who work with us and help us out, like Polyvinyl and our booking agent Seth at Nicodemus.
Erin, I don't think the cover of Kill Them With Kindness could ever be taken as a self-portrait. You seem to speak in flowers and shoot flowers from your eyes, not daggers. Is that about right? Or do you take to the fiesty side?
Tristan Wraight: The cover is not and was never intended to be a portrait of Erin. I think the cover art has more to do with interpreting the name of the album than anything. We have had a lot of amazing experiences on the road and in the world of music so far. As much fun and excitement as it provides there is also a dark side to this lifestyle. I think all three of us have experienced it in different ways. It is really important to us not to let that get us down or make us bitter. We don't want to become assholes just because being in a band is really hard. So hopefully our efforts are working.
Are depressions or bummers the source material for your songs? The feeling I get from a lot of the songs is, "Gosh, I wish things could just be a little better than they are? Wouldn't that be great?"
EF: I suppose difficult situations and feelings are a large part of what we write about. Tristan and I find that lyrics and songwriting are very therapeutic and so I know small bits of struggles we're going through come out in the songs. I think if you listen closely there is also a lot of hope there too.
Do you guys winter well? It's cold as hell here (as it is there). What's too cold for you?
Brett Sanderson: I am definitely not "winter people." If I'm cursing under my breath, I know it's too cold.
EF: The winter is hard for me but I find that the bleak days and cold nights always provide some perspective that I don't have in the summer time. I love snow! Unfortunately we've had almost none this year. I'm hoping we get to see some on tour…but not too much.
TW: Wearing my coat, hat and gloves in my living room is too cold for me. I actually really like the winter and would say that it was the farm house that doesn't winter well.
Is there one floor or couch, in all of your travels, that's treated you the best of all of them?
EF: There are so many friends who have let us stay with them over the years it's almost impossible to pinpoint the best one. All we can really do is say thank you to those who've provided warm, clean places for us to stay and delicious meals for us to eat. I don't mean to be dramatic, but we would never get through the long tours without our friends.
Do you both (and by that I mean Tristan and Erin) bring equal numbers of songs to practices for band consideration? Is it hard for you at times to pick what makes the record?
EF: We are equal songwriting partners in this group and we always just let what happens happen naturally. Sometimes Tristan has a bunch of songs and sometimes I do. And so far we've just put the songs we thought worked together best. I think we'll have a lot more to choose from on the next record and probably approach selecting the songs a little differently. Tristan and I also write a lot of songs together and have been doing so much more lately. Even when we don't "write" a song together we always help each other and then all three of us work to make it a Headlights song.
There's an 18-second track on the record called "The Midwest Is The Best." Do you really feel that sentiment? What about the Midwest has your hearts?
EF: There's just a certain kind of "down to earth-ness" that you just can't find outside of the Midwest. Hard to put your finger on it. It's just there. We all grew up here and feel very comfortable in this part of the country. Living in the Midwest is a strange thing though. I think you feel this certain peacefulness in small town Illinois with the flat land and the eerie sunsets. However, that peacefulness and comfort is juxtaposed by feeling like we're missing something somewhere else. Then the itch to get on the road again always sets in and we go find out what's happening.
At the same time, in the songs, there are mentions of dying cities and cities in ruin, probably in the Midwest. What town are you walking through in "Owl Eyes?" That songs about getting away isn't it, escaping the Midwest?
EF: In "Owl Eyes," I was writing about the town we live in. When I write about dying cities or cities in ruin, I think it's much more the way I view Champaign when I feel like it's time for us to go. When we come home it is the only place we want to be.
How does Erin's idea of fun differ from Tristan's and Tristan's from Brett's idea, etc.?
EF: Erin and Tristan's idea of fun is cooking a beautiful and delicious meal. Brett's idea of fun is eating it!
Kill Them With Kindness is such a realized sounding debut. How did that happen and what's next?
EF: Honestly, we felt pretty rushed while we were recording Kill Them With Kindness. So it's all a little bit of a blur. I know that we all care about each of the songs tremendously and tried to treat each one in a way that we thought would make it sound good.
What was the first show you ever saw?
EF: My first show was MC Hammer with Boys II Men and Jodecei. Pretty hot!
BS: My first show was Alice in Chains opening for Van Halen (or Van Hagar).
TW: My first show was Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, with my parents.