Hawthorne Heights On Their New LP And Coming Full Circle With Siiickbrain’s “Ohio Is For Lovers” Remake

Courtney Kiara

Hawthorne Heights On Their New LP And Coming Full Circle With Siiickbrain’s “Ohio Is For Lovers” Remake

Courtney Kiara

Hawthorne Heights’ debut album, The Silence In Black And White, came out on June 1, 2004. That same month, My Chemical Romance released Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, Underoath dropped They’re Only Chasing Safety, and From First To Last debuted with Dear Diary, My Teenage Angst Has A Bodycount. By summer’s end, new albums by the Used and Senses Fail would also hit the CD shelves of Hot Topic outlets across the country. Every one of those albums would chart on the Billboard 200. Screamo, once the domain of heady, introspective bands like Pg. 99 and City Of Caterpillar, had somehow become pop music.

Perhaps the unlikeliest of those newly minted rock stars were Hawthorne Heights, a fivesome of shaggy-haired kids from Dayton, Ohio. Their rise came on the back of “Ohio Is For Lovers,” a song they buried deep on the B-side of The Silence In Black And White and never planned to release as a single. “We were so dumb,” singer/guitarist JT Woodruff says now. “It had a very similar chord progression to ‘Silver Bullet,’ which we thought was going to be a big song for us. So, we were like, ‘Well, we already have ‘Silver Bullet.’ Why do we care about this song?'”

Eventually, the band’s fans forced them to see the light. Even though they weren’t playing the song live and it hadn’t received any significant airplay, “Ohio Is For Lovers” became a word-of-mouth favorite. The band’s label, Victory Records, included it on a few CD samplers to test the waters, and the response was so overwhelming that they made a video and released it as a single more than a year after The Silence In Black And White first dropped. The clip wound up in heavy rotation on MTV, the song cracked the Alternative Top 40, and the album went gold.

“Ohio Is For Lovers” was a modest hit nationally, but if you were in high school in Dayton when it blew up, as I was, it felt like Beatlemania. Hawthorne Heights merch became ubiquitous in the hallways. “Cut my wrists and black my eyes,” the song’s dramatic, over-the-top hook, may have encapsulated the screamo aesthetic circa 2005, but soon everybody was screaming along. It’s one thing to have hometown heroes. It’s another to have a band from your backyard go on MTV to say that they can’t make it on their own because their heart is in Ohio.

Hawthorne Heights rode the wave from “Ohio Is For Lovers” to another hit album, 2006’s If Only You Were Lonely. Its lead single, “Saying Sorry,” actually managed to eclipse “Ohio” on the Alternative charts, cracking the top 10. Tragedy and turmoil would soon follow. In November 2007, rhythm guitarist and harsh vocalist Casey Calvert was found dead on the band’s tour bus. Grief rocked the band, but the ride didn’t — couldn’t — stop. “The music industry will swallow you up if you let it,” Woodruff tells me. “It’s not like you can tell the music scene and your fans and everybody else, ‘Hey guys, can we have about six months off to deal with this?’ People just move on. They’re not here for your sad stories and your grief. They’re here to be entertained.”

The band soldiered on after Calvert’s death without taking a significant break. They continued to tour constantly. New albums came out every other year like clockwork. The pace of their output has slowed in recent years, but they never took a true hiatus, even when founding members Eron Bucciarelli and Micah Carli quit in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Bad Frequencies was released in 2018, and it was the first Hawthorne Heights album to feature Mark McMillon and Chris “Poppy” Popadak of fellow Dayton emo crew The Story Changes. A new album with the same lineup, The Rain Just Follows Me, arrived last month. I spent a couple hours on Zoom with JT Woodruff, and he told me about the making of that album, working with hyperpop artist Siiickbrain, and living with the legacy of “Ohio Is For Lovers.”

Let’s start with the new record. The Rain Just Follows Me just came out last month. When did you write and record it?

JT WOODRUFF: We were gonna make this record in 2019 because we’d just locked our Bayside/Senses Fail tour. We were like, “OK, that’s gonna be the perfect time to make a record and release it on that tour, because every fan from that scene that grew up listening to our band, this is gonna be like a class reunion.” We start working on the record, and we’re doing it sort of light because we’re touring so much, but we’re supposed to have a big chunk of time to write it. And then New Found Glory’s agent calls us and is like, “Hey, it’s time to finally do the Hawthorne Heights/New Found Glory tour that you guys have been asking for the last decade.” Then Silverstein called and asked us to tour Europe with them at the beginning of 2020.

In the past, we’ve been able to just get it done. We’re professional, we work really hard, and this is all we do for a living. But it got to a point where push was starting to come to shove. There was this looming anxiety of it because we were like, “When are we actually going to do this?” You’ve got all this touring ahead of the album cycle, and then you have to record it. None of which is written, by the way. We’re doing really dumb stuff. Instead of off days, we’re driving overnight to get to rehearsal studios to write and record demos. We didn’t take an off day for about three months straight.

We recorded in Orange County, California in November, right after Thanksgiving. If we were recording this in Indiana or something like that, there was no way it would have happened. I would have gone home. But we stayed in a beach house on Newport Beach, and every morning I would go out at about 6:30 in the morning before anyone was awake, and I would sit on the beach and reflect on all of the worst memories of the past 20 years. I would just sit there and think about all the things I never had time to think about, like the passing of Casey. I would sit there every morning because I was still writing lyrics. I wanted to sit there and unpack everything that was in my head that I never had time to just sit there and think about.

I suffered through it, but it was for the betterment of the record. I truly feel that way, because when we started to dig into the songs, they really started to flourish. What we started to realize was maybe the last couple records were too easy. This was a very, very fine picture of the way everything was happening. Whether it does well among our fans or not, it really connects with us. It was a turning point for us to be able to accept this challenge. And it made us internally talk about the things that we do wrong in our band to put us in these situations. So we talked about stuff like selecting your touring a little better so you’re not miserable doing it. There was a lot of great things that came out of this. But directly after we get it done and we’re starting the mixing process, we go and do that tour with Silverstein in Europe, and one week after that, the pandemic happens, and we were like, “Man, we could have taken our time with this.” [laughs]

Was there any moment in 2020, when the pandemic was dragging on and you saw other bands drop their records that they were sitting on, when you thought, “Let’s just get this out there?”

WOODRUFF: There were two distinct lines of thought. One was: We’re Hawthorne Heights, we’re not gonna change the world with this record. We can release a record whenever we want, and our fans will be happy. As a veteran artist, you’re happy to make new fans, but we don’t expect a lot of 15-year-olds to find us on a blog and say, “Oh my God, this is my new favorite band.” It’s not the end of our career if we released a record and we can’t tour on it. As long as we promote it really well, people will hear about it. But then there was: There are more important things happening in the world right now, and we don’t feel great about trying to promote a record. We didn’t want to be like, “Hey, you know your hard-earned money that you’re not even able to earn right now? Can we have some of that?” It just seemed so small. Everyone in the world was going through a real-deal challenging time where everything in your life is different than it once was, so it just seemed silly to be like, “Hey, let’s talk about this music.” There’s bigger fish to fry.

We should be treating everything like it’s pre-internet. If you can hold it in your hands at some point in your life, that’s great. But we don’t need it the next day. We’ve all become really impatient. The pandemic is making people have to relearn a little bit that you can’t get everything exactly when you want it, and maybe you should be happy that you can get anything at all.

“Back to normal” is not the goal anymore. It’s just learning how to do the new normal.

WOODRUFF: Totally. And as much as people don’t like to talk like that, the world’s gonna pass you by, because they don’t care how you feel. Just trying to achieve daily happiness is really what we should be doing and what we re-pivoted toward as musicians. We don’t have to worry about putting the record out and freaking out if it does well. This is not going to be like 2005 MTV Hawthorne Heights ever again, because that’s not the world that any of us live in, you know what I mean? We would love the people who have been with us the past 20 years to just enjoy what we’re doing. That’s all we want.

That’s a good segue back to the early days. I’m a Dayton kid, and I was in high school when The Silence In Black And White was first blowing up, and “Ohio Is For Lovers” for a minute there was the unifying rock song at my school. When you were writing it, did you have a sense it was going to be an anthem for Ohio kids?

WOODRUFF: We had no idea. The bands never know, by the way. We’re such clowns. We’re digesting the song in a different way. Our first demo that we sent away to try to get signed by record labels had “Silver Bullet,” “Dissolve And Decay,” “Niki FM,” and “Speeding Up The Octaves.” “Ohio Is For Lovers” was not even a blip on the radar for us. When we were in the studio, we only had the instrumental of the song. We put it track eight on the record for a reason. We didn’t think anything of it whatsoever.

When I wrote those lyrics and I wrote that melody, the producer was, like, yelling at me. We were listening to that song, and it was time to start going through it, and he was like, “Your singer doesn’t even have the lyrics to that song, I don’t know why we’re working on it.” I had just come up with them about 10 minutes before that, so I was like, “I have it,” and he said, “Well, I haven’t heard it. Sing it.” So, he hit the space bar on the instrumental part on the chorus, I sang the lines of the chorus in the melody, and he was like, “Man, that’s pretty fucking good.” I was like, “See?”

It wasn’t a calculated thing. I didn’t say, “I’m going to use Ohio in a song so we can be the next Chili Peppers, but the Ohio version.” I was just writing lyrics, and I was just writing a reaction to an argument my girlfriend at the time and I were having, about this being overwhelming and me being gone for the first time, and me being like, “This is the beginning of this. If this goes well, this is going to be like this for a long time.” “Ohio Is For Lovers” was made out of an argument that Niki and I were having that we actually made it through. We’re still married to this day, and she’s always been super supportive. She understood then and understands now that this is a lifetime opportunity to chase your dreams. It was a great impact on our relationship, having that initial conversation, but it was also a strain at the moment that literally wrote that song on the spot.

I had no idea that anybody would connect to it, but we took off on a rocket. We never got to look back. We never got to take two months off and walk the streets of Dayton and realize what happened. People in our hometown, they had no idea we were from Dayton, we were so big out of nowhere. It only took like a year, year and a half, and we were on MTV. All these kids would start to come up to us when we would just be sitting at Starbucks and be like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re here.” And we’re like, “We’re from here!” It was a crazy moment.

I was at the middle school in Troy recently, and every year gets to paint a wall of important events that happened that year for the class. It was 2005, and we were so culturally relevant that we made it to their paint wall.

I feel like I remember that. That might have been my class.

WOODRUFF: Did you go to Troy?

I did.

WOODRUFF: Oh, that’s crazy. So you know the walls that I’m talking about. My daughter has seen me play in front of 25,000 people at Warped Tour and stuff like that, all these things she thought was normal. She didn’t understand the magnitude until she got to middle school. When you’re a kid, you don’t want to be embarrassed by anything, so even though your dad has a cool job, you still do not talk about it with other people. So she gets into middle school and she’s walking the halls for the first time, and she was like, “Dad, your name is painted on the wall.” That was the first time I’d ever seen it. She’s been having to deal with that ever since. When we did our first orientation, the teachers are starting to be like 30 years old, and they’re like, “You’re the singer of Hawthorne Heights, aren’t you?” And she’d be like, “Dad, this is supposed to be about me.” It was a full-circle moment.

Dayton punches above its weight, musically. But when “Ohio Is For Lovers” hit, one of the biggest rock songs on MTV was by someone you could conceivably bump into downtown. I remember feeling like we were living through something that for Dayton kids, especially suburban Dayton kids, just doesn’t happen.

WOODRUFF: I’m right there with you. We were so busy, touring eight months out of the year, taking tour after tour, on this rocket and holding on for dear life because we didn’t want to fall off, and we’d be home for like maybe a week at a time. We’d be at home just hanging with our family and sleeping. We didn’t get to have a couple months off where you could just hang out and see the community and see what was happening in your own neighborhood. That would have been so much fun. We never had time in the early going to enjoy it because it happened so fast. When we were starting this band, I was working at the UDF on the corner of Market Street in Troy, and a year and a half later I was on the cover of magazines and playing on MTV and headlining Warped Tour. A year and a half, that was it.

We started to notice that when we did play Ohio, it would be insane. If we just went to the mall to shop, people would go crazy. I was in Hollister or something, and an employee asked if I needed anything and went ghost-white when I looked up at her. I didn’t understand what was going on, and all the employees came up and were like, “You’re from Hawthorne Heights,” and I was like, “Yeah, I need to buy shorts.” These were normal people. I knew emo kids were gonna like our band. If they’re dressed that way, I can tell. But these were totally regular, normal people who might not even listen to rock music, and they know who we are. We come from the music scene that’s playing Knights of Columbus halls and stuff like that. It’s a tight-knit circle. Once you break out of that and get to the next level of human beings who just listen to what’s popular, you start to encounter stuff like that. It was wild.

I don’t think we will ever truly understand it because the point of view we see it from. It’s like if you listen to Taking Back Sunday or Jimmy Eat World or Thursday or anything like that, and one of those is from your town. I hope it gives hope to anybody from a small town who is musical, that this absolutely can happen because it did happen. It had to have impacted The Devil Wears Prada and Miss May I, other bands who are from this area. Maybe not musically, but being in a band and being like, yeah, we’ve got a shot. It happened in our backyard, and if we write great songs it can happen to us.

I graduated with all the Miss May I guys, and I can definitely tell you that you were an influence.

WOODRUFF: That’s great. I’ve kept in contact with those guys over the years as well. It’s great to see those guys. I was always so proud that other bands were able to break out as well. If we had any impact on that, that is as important to me as anything else, because being able to enlighten the world to your little corner is great.

I have a few more on “Ohio Is For Lovers.” I’m sorry, I’m sure you’re sick of talking about it.

WOODRUFF: Hey, man. It’s been a great thing these past 16 or 17 years. If you still want to talk about “Ohio Is For Lovers,” that’s a great thing. That’s not a shadow-chasing thing. You get bands who are like, “Do we really have to talk about this?” And it’s like, “Dude, you don’t wanna talk about it? You wrote it! You don’t want to talk about the songs that you write?” And then people will not play their great songs live, and it’s like, “You don’t wanna play the songs that people want to hear that you’ve written?” So we’re always down.

It’s great to have that level of self-awareness about it. You had a couple more radio and MTV hits over the next couple of years, “Niki FM” and “Saying Sorry.” But “Ohio Is For Lovers” has settled in as your signature song. If people know one Hawthorne Heights song, it’s probably that. As a band who’s still putting out records, do you have any mixed emotions about the way that song is seen or the lens through which people view your band?

WOODRUFF: It’s always been great for us. We’ve been very fan-friendly. Anything to get someone’s foot in the door to watch us and continue to play shows, that’s a good thing. So talking about it 16 years later after its inception, I think that’s wonderful. People don’t really get to have that opportunity. You can look at the negative side of that, but I don’t view it that way at all. If anyone wants to talk to you about something that you’ve created out of thin air, that’s a great thing.

The weirdest thing about Hawthorne Heights having success early and being able to maintain it is we’ve had a lot of people come in and out of our career as a band. You have diehards, and then you have the infiltration of the normal people when you break into the mainstream. Those people filter in and out. When you break into the mainstream, they just catch a glimmer of you for a second, and that’s OK too. It’s not even glass half-full. It’s glass full. It’s gotta be glass full at all times, or you’ll be miserable doing this stuff. We love every second of it, and I will talk about “Ohio Is For Lovers” any chance I get as much as I will talk about our new music any chance I get.

I just love the idea of being taken moderately serious as an entertainer for any length of time. I have not become jaded. I still try to have as much fun with it as I can. I’m now on TikTok. I’m trying to go where the people who want to hear me are, because I don’t want them to have to chase me down. At the core of it, we are entertainers, and you just want to be talking about your art and music at any length.

TikTok makes me think of the Siiickbrain collab that just came out. That’s seemingly something that’s not driven by nostalgia, because she’s quite young. You’ve got a new “Ohio Is For Lovers” remix out in 2021 with somebody who’s mainly speaking to Gen Z. That must be a kind of crazy experience.

WOODRUFF: When we were first pitched the idea, it was an immediate yes for me. This is why you play music. The way that it was pitched to us by her manager was, “We have an artist who is starting to work on her own songs, but she learned how to scream by listening to ‘Ohio Is For Lovers.'” I was like, that’s incredible, that’s a total full-circle moment. Listening to her music, I was like, “If anything, it’s going to be interesting because she doesn’t sound anything like us.” If it had been a young pop-punk band or something like that, that wouldn’t have been interesting. I don’t want to hear a 2021 version of a band trying to make it sound like we make it sound. That’s not very compelling. But I could tell it was going to be something entirely different. She sent it over a couple days later, and we were blown away.

They wanted me to be in the music video. I said, “That would be cool, but when are you thinking?” And they were wanting me to fly out the day before our tour started, so that’s what I did. I had to do it. I flew out the night before I was scheduled to be in Jacksonville, Florida. So I show up and they’re like, “OK, you’re gonna kill her.” I show up thinking I’m gonna be singing into the camera and we’re gonna be dancing or something, and it turned into like a Netflix documentary where I’m a cold-blooded killer. I had no idea that I was the star of the show, and that Siiickbrain is only in it until I murder her.

The Rain Just Follows Me is out now on Pure Noise.

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