Colorado-based, three-piece stringband Head For The Hills released their newest studio work this past Friday, an EP: the politically minded and emotionally vibrant, four-song collection called Say Your Mind. Featuring a heady mix of special guest artists, like Pimps of Joytime’s Kim Dawson, Elephant Revival’s Darren Garvey and others, the record is some of the band’s most creatively satisfying work yet.
Born out of the Colorado music scene, Head For The Hills have been pushing boundaries in the studio and on stage for over fifteen years now, and that decade and a half has earned them regular performances at mega festivals like Telluride, SXSW, and High Sierra, along with recognitions from the likes of NPR and others.
Ahead of an East Coast tour this week that, starting in Virginia, will hit NYC, Burlington, Connecticut, Lima, NY and Mt Holly, NJ, the band’s bassist Matt Loewen talked with NYS Music about the new EP Say Your Mind, the title track’s new music video, and more.
Miles Hurley: So, your new release. How did you guys go about deciding to make an EP of four new songs rather than a full album or something else?
Matt Loewen: So, we’ve been in a little bit of a transitional period, in terms of being a band that had a mandolin player in it, to being a band that plays with percussion in it. We’ve been an acoustic four-piece band for a long time, so we’ve been in the process of evolving a little bit, I guess. And we went into the studio and recorded those four songs, and I really thought it was a strong statement. But in terms of the EP thing…the way the music industry goes, to make it work you kind of have to put stuff out all the time. And I think we’ve shifted from everybody just put out a record, and then twelve to eighteen months later you put out another record, and then twelve to eighteen months later you put out another record. But that’s just not the way it goes anymore. I mean, I love albums, I have thousands of records, I love the long play album format.
But I also think it’s cool how things have opened up, and how you have the full myriad of ways of going about releasing music, whether its a record, or an EP, or just a single, or just a video, etcetera. So we’re starting to look at doing all of that different stuff, and we’ve got some other interesting things later this year that are, again, not in the full album format, but just making music and getting it out there.
MH: That’s cool. So then, would you say the band is in a writing period? Or do you have material that you’re currently sitting on?
ML: I wouldn’t say we’re sitting on things, but writing, it’s just always happening. We all write a little bit, but there’s two primary writers, Adam and Joe, and they are always writing. So we’ve got some songs that we haven’t recorded. But we don’t do the thing where you hole up for a month and write a bunch of songs. We’re always writing and coming up with stuff.
MH: I’ve heard a similar sentiment from other artists I’ve spoken with recently, that it’s more common to be touring and working, and living life and all that, and songwriting is worked into the lifestyle.
ML: Yeah. Which is cool and not cool, sometimes. But overall I think its cool.
MH: So, for Head For The Hills, bringing guests into the studio process is not something new. But can you tell me about some of the artists you invited this time around? I see Kim Dawson, Todd Livingston, even a horn section. Are these old or new friends to the band?
ML: Everybody that’s on the EP are people that we’ve known for awhile. The drummer, Darren, was with Elephant Revival, their percussion guy, although they aren’t playing right now. That’s how we know him. The rest of the people we’ve known for awhile, and it was fun to have that kind of family atmosphere. Sometimes you do bring in people that you’ve never met before, and the first time you meet them is when you’re trying to be creative, which can in and of itself be really awesome. But yeah, this time it was bunch of friends, and we got them in there and it was cool. We’d been bringing in some of those people into the live show, locally, because they’re all our Colorado friends. We’ve had the horn section up at some concerts, we’ve had Kim come and sing…so there was a familiarity thing, and it was really rewarding.
MH: That’s always an interesting thing, hearing what artists create in the studio and then they sometimes have to choose what of that makes its way into the live show. For the EP, did you have to make decisions about trying to recreate some of it’s different sounds live, or maybe just playing them in a stripped down way?
ML: Well, that’s all part of the process, exactly what you’re talking about. Because inevitably, in the recording we do, there’s typically going to be overdubs. There’s always little things that you add, like Joe will double the violin part, and no matter what you just can’t be two people at once, right? (laughs) So we can’t do that live, and we have to figure out how to approach that. And, with this new stuff, these four new songs, we play pretty much everything. Like “Can’t Stay This Way For Long,” which has a pretty significant horn section on the album, we still play that live. What’s cool about it is, Joe and Todd Livingston, who is playing dobro on the road with us, they’ve learned those horn parts, right? So they’ll come in and replicate some of those parts. And, inevitably, the songs become their own thing live, because that’s just kind of what happens, which is cool. But that’s how I’d say we’ve kind of approached that, on this new stuff. Picking some of those new pieces up, and playing them in the tunes. It’s been fun.
MH: “Say Your Mind,” the title track, has a great music video along with it, which you directed. Can you tell me a bit about what’s going on in this video?
ML: The guy that plays the main character is Boots, the one with all the jewelry and that drives the car. He’s been a friend of the band for a long time, and he’s a local. He lives up in the canyon, outside of town. I just think he’s so f***ing interesting. You know, he was born in Queens, had famous parents, moved to the Bay and knew The Grateful Dead and Bill Graham, he was a technical guy that went on tour, was an animal person that was on the Jack Parr show. He’s just a fascinating dude. And I always wanted to make a music video with him, and the original concept was that he was going to be driving around town in this convertible. That was an idea in my head for a really long time.
Then it came time to do a video for this “Say Your Mind” song, and I started kicking that idea around again, with Boots, and it evolved into this story about a father and his relationship with his kid. There’s some heartache there, and so the story is about reconciliation, about coming together, and love and family can really bring things together. So that’s the story of the video, which to me is a parallel narrative to the song, because the song is really a message from a father to their child. Adam wrote it, he was inspired by this experience to write a song as a sort of letter to your child, and about doing your thing and being happy, living life to the fullest.
When I think about music videos, I’m most interested in parallel narratives if it’s going to be a narrative-based thing. So instead of something that’s directly following the words of the song, I’m into doing something that’s similar but not exactly the same thing, and telling a related story that can maybe highlight some elements of the lyrics but not be directly tied to it. So that’s what we did with “Say Your Mind.” The party at the end of the video is shot at Joe’s house, with a bunch of our friends and family, it’s Adam’s family that’s in the video, like his daughters.
MH: You’ve done a bunch of videos for your band in the past as well. Has video production been in your background for a long time?
ML: You know, I actually started doing it for the band. And yeah, I’ve been doing it for a little while at this point. My background with it is really all centered around making content for us. I’ve expanded and worked with other people. I’ll eventually be doing a video for another group, when we get back from tour. But yeah it began, well, years ago, before video became as ubiquitous and necessary as it is now. But I rented a camera when we recorded our self-titled record in the studio. And I thought, we should video this, why not? Let’s just rent a camera. So we took a bunch of video footage and then I was like, “Well shit, I guess I’ve gotta edit this, or do something with it.” (Laughs) So I got my software and did up the whole thing. That was pretty much the beginning of it, for me, and I’ve had a bit of a network from it, other bands and creative people that need stuff. It’s allowed me to grow and do different stuff, and I’m always looking for more work.
MH: The last track on the EP, “I Am The Problem.” Honestly, I don’t think I’ve heard anything quite like that, the mix of hip-hop and Americana songwriting.
ML: Good! Well thanks, I’ll take that as a compliment, whether you mean it that way or not (laughs).
MH: Definitely a compliment!
ML: Sweet! Yeah, that’s definitely a product of Joe’s personal background as a writer and as a musician. Separately, he has had different hip-hop groups, one in particular called Whiskey Blanket that still makes records. He’s done that for as long as he’s been with our band. I think, over time, those things get closer to each other, more and more hip-hop worked into his writing for Head For The Hills. Another example is from a few records ago, a song called “Never Does.” It’s very rapid-fire, and if you were to look at the words on a page and the way that the rhymes actually make out, and the way the end line rhymes, all that stuff, it’s pretty similar to the way someone would concept a hip-hop verse. So, flash forward to now, on “I Am The Problem.” The concept for the song was alway that there would be this part in the middle where he raps, essentially. And the decision was made to just go for that. And he goes on and on and on, which is progressive. It’s cool to hear it live, it’s a lot of words, and he just goes for it (laughs). I hope that people are ready for it!
MH: So, you have a little tour coming up soon, which will start on the East Coast and then head back out west. So I’m curious – over the years, as you’ve toured more and more with Head For The Hills, have there been certain scenes or places around the country that you’ve really taken a liking to, or looked forward to returning to?
ML: Yeah, I’d say so! You know, being based in Colorado, it’s a lot easier for us to get to the West Coast and the Midwest, so over the years that’s where we’ve spent a lot of time. Especially the Northwest, love going there, love Portland and Seattle and that whole area, it’s been good to the band. I would say the same for Chicago, it’s been a favorite for the group. But over the past couple of years, we’ve just started to expand a little bit more eastward, and have actually really enjoyed getting out there. And I say that because…my initial answer is always the Pacific Northwest, but part of that is bred in familiarity, like we go there all the time. I haven’t been to Burlington, VT ten times, I’ve only been twice, and I love that area. It’s a big-ass country, and there are just so many different people and places. And I find myself enjoying a lot of them where people are open minded, proudly respecting people for who they are, stuff like that. As long those elements are in place, I’m down. (Laughs) If people are close minded and weird, and there’s a bunch of bigotry going on, that makes it harder to really enjoy a place. I’m also really looking forward to getting back to New York, always such a crazy, vibrant place.
MH: Nice! Well I am personally planning to catch you guys on April 4 when you perform at Rockwood Music Hall. Have you played there before?
ML: We have been there before. The last time we played somewhere else, but the first time we played at Rockwood, and yeah, that’s a cool spot. The first night we played there, the music that was presented before us was a singer-songwriter with a pianist and bassist, and the bassist ended up being Leland Sklar, who’s like one of the most recorded, most famous studio bassists of all time. Which is just random, but that’s the way that place definitely is, and I got to meet him which was f***ing awesome. And then after him was this band from, like, South America. I’m not even sure what you would call it, definitely not a salsa band but like a modern dance, but it was so good. So yeah, such a cool place. I’m a big fan and definitely looking forward to getting back there.